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WHO/Europe launches Western Balkans Digital Health Network

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Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge,WHO Regional Director for Europe, speaking at the opening of Western Balkans Digital Summit on 11 October 2021

“COVID-19 has been a wake-up call, underlining the need to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies in public health and health care,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, at the launch of the WHO/Europe Western Balkans Digital Health Network.

“It is important that we move health care from a reactive system, constantly putting out fires, to one that anticipates potential ignition points and prevents them before they take hold.”

Speaking virtually at the opening of the 2021 Western Balkans Digital Summit in Podgorica, Montenegro, on 11 October 2021, Dr Kluge underscored the importance of digital technologies in the fight against COVID-19. He noted that digital technologies continue to support national response efforts, facilitate testing, tracing and diagnosis, and reorganize care delivery, all while helping to ensure continuity of essential health services.

Addressing regional and subregional needs

The new network was launched by Dr Kluge and Ms Tamara Srzentić, Minister of Public Administration, Digital Society and Media of Montenegro, with the support of the WHO Country Office in Montenegro. It will bring together Member States to address the enablers of successful digital transformation of health systems, with a focus on moving from words to action.

“Economies that have performed the best have a history of strategic investments in integrated public health and primary health-care systems, as well as mature digital ecosystems,” said Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, Director of the Division of Country Health Policies and Systems at WHO/Europe, in a video statement delivered at the Summit.

“I encourage your ministries to play an active role in this network and take pragmatic steps to empower your populations through access to health services and data,” Dr Azzopardi-Muscat added.

Digital health as an accelerator of change

Governments have understood the need to integrate novel tools and methods of primary health-care delivery into their national health systems. But much work remains to strengthen governance, policy, the digital skills of health workers and national legislation for digital health.

The WHO/Europe Western Balkans Digital Health Network will support the work and commitments of the forthcoming Western Balkans Roadmap for Health 2021–2025 (to be released in December 2021). This will ensure that actions for digital health are anchored in public health priorities, and further the implementation of WHO’s European Programme of Work 2020–2025 – “United Action for Better Health in Europe”.

“Despite years of WHO and its partners highlighting the importance of investing in data and digital health to reform health systems, uptake and trust in digital health by populations in the Western Balkans and the broader WHO European Region are hugely uneven,” Dr Kluge said.

“There is momentum now, and we must work across sectors and borders to ensure that digital transformation delivers on the promise of safe, effective and equitable digital health services for a post-COVID-19 era,” he concluded.

What the Network will do

Specifically, the WHO/Europe Western Balkans Digital Health Network will:

  • support the implementation of digital health priorities identified by the WHO Western Balkans Roadmap for Health 2021–2025;
  • find ways to accelerate the digitalization of national health systems and the development of equitable digital health services in the Western Balkans (focusing on the delivery of primary health care);
  • promote the sharing of knowledge and identification of best practices; and
  • increase subregional collaboration and alignment of actions for digital health.
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