The latest OECD annual health report, Health at a Glance 2023, released this week, spotlights digital health as an “emerging health determinant”. The report also includes a full chapter on digital health for the first time. 

While many parts of the National Health Service continue to struggle with digital transformation, the OECD report makes it clear that the UK is not an isolated case. While it notes the increasing role of electronic health records (EHRs) and telemedicine in health systems globally, it also cites the fact that health systems across the world continue to rely on fax machines, with estimates that 75% of global fax traffic are reportedly used for medical services.  

“Whether or not that is exactly correct, it is indicative of the challenges that health has with respect to digitalisation or making use of digitalisation,” said Eric Sutherland, OECD senior health economist and author of the digital chapter, in an interview with Digital Health News. 

The report notes that digital tools and the use of health data are transforming “how health services are delivered, how public health is protected, and how chronic conditions are managed and prevented.” It adds that the movement toward more integrated digital healthcare is supporting the “responsible” use of AI and analytics.  

“Digital transformation has been described as a determinant of health, as digital technologies, access, and literacy increasingly influence health, well-being and health transformations,” the report goes on to say.

At the same time, it enumerates the challenges facing countries and regions looking to level up digitally, including the need for governance, legal and regulatory changes necessary to protect the public as it adapts to a future of digital healthcare, and the continued threat of cyberattacks.  

The report projects that investments in digital strategy could generate potential returns of US$3 for every US$1 of investment. Sutherland said the benefits are likely to be felt in back-office efficiencies and health system staffing, as well as frontline care. 

“Better use of digital tools can be not the solution, but part of the solution to global workforce challenges,” he said. “From a productivity perspective, many other industries have experienced double digit productivity gains and health has been lacking.” 

Scaling up existing innovations will also be challenging and risk exposing inequalities, Sutherland acknowledged, adding: “While there are concerns about digital health expanding the digital divide, the irony and important thing to remember is that digital health that enables processing and use of data will help identify where those inequalities exist.”