Riding the wave of digitalisation for public health – Interview with Clayton Hamilton

Further to an insightful session on the value of evidence in outcomes-based healthcare at this year’s European Health Forum Gastein, we sat down with Clayton Hamilton, leader of the WHO Regional Office for Europe’s Initiative for Digitalization of Health Systems, Division of Health Systems and Public Health at the WHO Regional Office for Europe, to talk about challenges and future trends in digital health, his passion for innovation and WHO’s role in supporting Member States on their journey towards digital innovation in health systems,

Clayton Hamilton

Clayton, after working in the area of digital health for more than 20 years, how would you describe the development of this field in the past years?

CH: Very generally, I think that, over the last five years, digital health has turned a major corner. It has grown as a discipline and in terms of its implementation size: while previously people thought of it as an add-on to health services, health care delivery and health information exchange, people now see digital health as front and center, and as a catalyst to a lot of the system transformation that we are looking to undertake. That is a move towards patient centered and integrated care.

Digital health continues to develop in a multitude of ways and encompasses everything from electronic health records to mobile health, to more emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and personalized medicine; and, of course, in between there are also a lot of medical devices and standards for interoperability and information exchange.

Digital health is certainly both comprehensive and complex, which I think is very exciting and also an immense challenge, because we have to define and classify digital health in a way that can be standardized and understood by everyone.

Given digitalisation’s rapid growth and complexity, what do you think are the next innovations in the field of digital health and the use of outcomes-based evidence?

CH: I think the outcomes-based evidence is critically important, maybe more so now than ever before. We have a lot of innovations ongoing, many of which show a certain level of promise. What we need is to make sure that we have appropriate mechanisms to measure their cost-effectiveness, safety, reliability; and from that we can actually precipitate evidence that can be used to compare, clarify and base decisions upon. What we want is to avoid for the key decisions in health policy and administration to not be based on real evidence. So, the main issue is how you connect different data sources from across the health system in order to be able to actually obtain that reliable evidence and – most importantly – that such evidence is based upon high-quality data.

What do you think are the main challenges in collecting real-world outcomes-based evidence?

CH: Well, the main challenge, again, is that the evidence is multifaceted and is often stored in a multitude of siloed systems. Even two, three, five years ago, clinical systems and hospital information systems were very much focused around a single institution and the exchange and management of patient pathways within one institution. They rarely considered how to exchange information outside of their own four walls. So again, we have to come back to standards for data exchange and interoperability: how do we ensure that the quality of data is to the highest level it can be and how do we exchange that data between different entities in the health sector?

There are also other challenges related to how data will be used and how do we assure the consent of individuals so that their data can be used appropriately and in an ethical way. Another challenge relates to the question of how we can leverage some of the new technologies in the best possible way for not only clinical care, but also for public health use. And I think this is both a challenge but also a very exciting point to address.

How do you define WHO Europe’s role in promoting and implementing the reasonable use of real-world outcomes-based evidence?

CH: WHO’s commitment to supporting Member States’ in their national implementation of digital health is anchored in a new initiative requested by the Regional Director for WHO/Europe known as the Digitalisation of Health Systems, which is being implemented under the leadership of Dr Hans Kluge, Director for the Division of Health Systems and Public Health. The purpose of the initiative is to bring – in a holistic way – all of the technical and non-technical aspects of digital health implementation together so that we can clearly define the necessary building blocks and develop a road map to achieve digital success at national level. This includes an examination of the validity and use of real-world evidence and how it can be used to supplement other mechanisms for monitoring health system performance. We are also fully aware that this is not something we can or should do in isolation. Therefore, part of the initiative involves bringing together all of the relevant partners and stakeholders to provide a consolidated support offering to the 53 countries in the WHO European Region.

Following-up on this, do you think this is also a chance for WHO to take on a leading role in this innovation process and to show that the Organisation is prepared to support Member States to address the challenges that might arise during the process?

CH: Definitely, and I think there has been a huge shift in the Organisation towards not only realizing that it has to take on a leadership role, but that it is now actually actively engaged in delivering on that in the context of health systems strengthening and public health innovation. So yes, this is a chance for the WHO to renew its promise to the Member States, but also to define what it means to develop best practice within digital health and really take on a public health perspective.

In your opinion, what are the three arguments you would use towards policy-makers to make the case for investment in digital health information infrastructure?

CH: Number one is that it will certainly lead to more efficient and effective health systems and health care. For policy-makers, it is about avoiding the waste of resources by bringing individual pieces together and creating more effective and efficient health systems. These will ultimately lead to higher quality at a patient outcome-level and that is really important.

Accordingly, the second point is about ensuring equity in the delivery of care. In light of the WHO’s goal of achieving universal health coverage, that means we need to ensure that each and every individual, each and every citizen, has access to the health care services they need without risking financial ruin or impoverishment. If policy-makers do not effectively leverage digital health, I am not sure we can achieve this public health goal.

The third argument is a rather future looking objective that policy makers have and relates back to the untapped value of data. Policy-makers are aware that high-quality health information is not only key for the future of healthcare delivery, but it is also an asset to help better manage the health system. In the future, we need to look much broader into how we can use data from both inside and outside the health sector for these purposes. The challenge for health systems will be to bring all of these elements together to effectively focus on the individual and move our health care from a treatment-based approach to a more preventative approach.

We would like to close with a more personal question. While you have been talking, one can see your passion for this topic. How come you got interested in digitalisation and digital health?

CH: Well, it is an interesting question. I am not sure if I was just at the right place at the right time, but I’ve always had a strong interest in various facets of technology. Already in my very early career as a consultant in Sydney, Australia, where I grew up, I had the fortune of working for a number of health technology companies. This was at a time when the concept of digital health did not even exist. It was very much a futuristic thing and I think that, since then, it has been like riding a wave. Almost every twist and turn has exposed something new, something exciting, and something intriguing.

I think what has also really kept me smiling and interested is knowing that digital health is having an impact on improving the life of many people and that in some small way, I have an opportunity to bring together the people and resources necessary to make a real difference. The next generation of youth is going to experience the digitalisation of health and health care and the potential of public health to really make the impact it has always promised. This is what keeps me going.

This interview was conducted by Young Gasteiners Patricia Dundler and Ramona Ludolph

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