School of Population Health

Harnessing digital health to build resilient health systems to respond effectively to pandemics

Image Teng LiawDr Siaw-Teng Liaw, Professor of General Practice at the School of Population Health, was appointed Head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre on eHealth in 2018. The Director-General of the WHO designates its collaborating centres (CC) based on the expertise of key individuals and research programs affiliated with universities and research institutes, to carry out activities in support of WHO programs globally. The WHO CC eHealth draws on the world-leading innovation and research expertise of UNSW Sydney Schools of Population Health, Business, Engineering and Computer Science to achieve the WHO Universal Health Coverage and United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. The Centre works closely with countries in the Asia-Pacific to leverage digital health to strengthen health systems, implement evidence-based patient-centred care, and to achieve Universal Health Coverage within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

According to Professor Liaw, a big focus for the WHO CC eHealth is growing local capacity as partners in co-creating digital health systems and services; to respond to acute health problems and deliver and maintain the best health outcomes for the long term.  

"It's one thing to develop a new digital health 'app' or more complex information systems like the Australian My Health Record system, using traditional software and information system development processes where there is limited engagement of the user," says Professor Liaw.

"It's an entirely different thing to know that the app or system can integrate smoothly into the users’ workflow within the local health system; to establish the relevance, validity and value proposition; determine the cost-effectiveness; facilitate the reach, adoption, implementation and maintenance; and ensure its sustainability through the co-creation philosophy," he says. "Each country has its unique systems, needs and capabilities; and many low and middle-income countries are extremely under-resourced relative to the demand, for example because of the double burden of non-communicable diseases and infectious diseases in the COVID-19 pandemic."

The Centre has developed a 'Digital Health Profile & Maturity Assessment Toolkit' to equip countries with the 'know-how' to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and use this 'digital health maturity assessment' to systematically implement and sustain their national eHealth programs to enable them to promptly and flexibly address epidemics of both infectious and non-communicable diseases. This tool is currently being used with key actors in the Pacific Island countries and territories.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the health, educational, commercial and social systems globally, in particular their 'digital' readiness to respond to an infectious disease crisis, says Professor Liaw.

"Telehealth and a virtual model of care can decrease the risk of infection in both emergency and primary care, social media platforms such as Twitter can monitor public reaction, and Google Trends can model pandemic trends, and telemonitoring can track the evolution of patients’ symptoms and risks over time," he says. "The virtual model of care will be the core of the future health system with face-to-face encounters happening only when necessary".