WHO Digital Health is focused on Mental Health!

In my MPH studies, I have been exposed to the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) more than ever based on the program’s focus on global mental health. It was the WHO’s global mental health reports that actually inspired me to pursue my MPH studies.

As a digital health strategist, I watch with interest, the WHO’s recent work in the digital health area and especially how this will impact WHO’s 3 billion (3B) target and UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of which Mental Health is a part. It was also encouraging to learn that WHO will be issuing their digital health strategy in May 2020.

I recently listened to an interview that CXO Talk conducted with WHO’s CIO and Digital Innovation Director, Bernardo Mariano, Jr..

The video can be found here and I want to summarize 12 insights that came up for me as I listened to this interview through the filter of mentaltech.

1. The importance of WHO digital health efforts enhancing SDG achievement where mental health as a sub-area of human well-being now has discrete goals. There is also a WHO Mental Health Action Plan which calls for:
a. strengthening of effective mental health governance and leadership,
b. provision of comprehensive, integrated and responsive community health and social care,
c. implementation of mental health prevention and promotion strategies, and d. strengthening of mental health information systems, evidence, and research. For each of these 4 areas, there are quantitative benchmarks which can be found here.

2. The critical need for focus in the areas of interoperability, data regulations, artificial (better said, augmented) intelligence, and enhanced disease elimination efforts which all have great potential for mental health. Data regulation is especially important given the stigma related to mental illnesses. The interoperability of data, as well as taxonomies and guidelines, are critical and more complex in mental health. Different from physical health, mental health involves the additional systems of education, law enforcement, faith communities, and social work, beyond healthcare, increasing its services’ complexity.

3. The importance of people, regulation and infrastructure partnerships among those with common health outcomes aspirations. A particular WHO role is that of convening stakeholders from across industry, academia, and government, to achieve balance among conflicting goals and incentives as well as to develop tools, systems, and solutions addressing these imbalances. This is important, and a need in the digital mental health area also. The good news is that we can see such convenings becoming more frequent and organized in efforts like HackMentalHealth, Becky Inkster’s Digital Innovations in Mental Health Conference, APA Digital Showcase, DTx Alliance, DiMeSociety, and newsletters from ReThink Behavioral Health Innovation and What-If Ventures. What-If Ventures additionally has a MentalTech SLACK community. There are others I am not yet aware of which, and which I appreciate your calling out for me. Though we have fledgling efforts at this stage there is so much more work to be done, and it will be.

4. The opportunity for learning from successful WHO health promotion efforts in the Vaccines, and I would add HIV/AIDS, to accelerate our own results around mental health. The WHO publishes a Mental Health Atlas and there is also the Mental Health Innovation Network which are good resources for seeing practices and interventions that are being implemented and evidenced around the world. Not all are digital but there are subsets that will be of interest to the MentalTech community.

5. The need to achieve “TechQuilibrium“, an interesting new term used to describe the need for reconciliation between the tech world’s drive for fast delivery with the life science’s drive for harm avoidance and reduction. He alludes to an additional balance that is needed between the demonetization of data for research and the monetization of the same for equitable profitability.

6. The need to assure the global digital health divide is bridged, an area that big tech may overlook without partnership and accountability. He references the 49% non-broadband world citizens who need low bandwidth solutions in order to not be left behind, as well as the ability to trust in digital health by means of dynamic consent.

7. The WHO’s intention to act as a sandbox for digital health test trials, prototypes and collaboration. This is critical to the development of “next wave” therapy interventions and business models which we all know are sorely needed in this overdeveloped, underadopted mentaltech market.

8. The upgrading of medical curricula to account for digital medical literacy inclusive of machine learning, robotics, augmented reality, etc., so that healthcare professionals can advance their skill and judgment related to tech on the path to maximizing population benefit of the same.

9. The potential of tech to create jobs with reskilling as well as to rightsize healthcare delivery supply and demand gaps, engaging the underutilized and relieving overburden on overutilized healthcare resources. We see this already in how teletherapy is allowing rural communities to access urban therapists.

10. The need to address reimbursement and cross-national licensure as part of the health care supply and demand gap fills and the digital divide. Resolving this will only enhance the value of teletherapy, and we already see efforts in this direction emerging.

11. The potential of “appropriate technologies” developed for low to medium-income settings having value for low to medium populations in high-income countries. Here I think we will see trends in tech transfer from the global East and South to the West. Stay tuned.

12. The importance of cross-national maturity indices, align to national health strategy and investment, something that WHO is famous for across its member nations. Such profiles and roadmaps are useful as benchmarks for global performance and accountability.

Again, as an MPH graduate student focused on global mental health, I am both enlightened and encouraged by this discussion. It shows there is an aspiration, and activity afoot for assuring that mental health is on the table as a benefactor of the global digital health movement we are leading and influencing.

We welcome your further comments and resource recommendations in response to this post.

And, by the way, please subscribe to our newsletter, participate in our Digital Stress Management Survey, and see more about our work at digitalmentalhealthproject.com.

Be well.

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