SWITZERLAND – The World Health Organization (WHO) has launched digital health network for the Western Balkan nations to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies in public health and healthcare.

Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, emphasized the importance of digital technologies in the fight against COVID-19 in a virtual speech at the opening of the 2021 Western Balkans Digital Summit in Podgorica, Montenegro.

He stated that digital technologies continue to support national response efforts, facilitate testing, tracing, and diagnosis, and reorganize care delivery, all while ensuring the continuity of critical health services.

Dr. Kluge and Ms Tamara Srzenti, Montenegro’s Minister of Public Administration, Digital Society, and Media, with the support of the WHO Country Office in Montenegro launched the new network.

It will bring together Member States to address the enablers of successful digital health system transformation, with a focus on moving from words to action.

Healthcare is being transformed by digital transformation (DT). A surge in technological innovation has been witnessed to ensure continuity in care delivery, propelled by the ‘new normal’ associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the healthcare industry, operational excellence is linked to the quality of care provided. By improving clinical data communication and patient engagement, DT can improve quality of care and increase patient satisfaction.

However, in many countries, it is difficult to move beyond the concept and away from the perception that digital transformation of health is merely a technological process in which “people simply have to adapt to a new normal.”

The digital network will enhance the network infrastructure and digital connectivity in the Western Balkan nations which have lagged behind lagging behind the wider EU environment.

Some Balkan countries, over the past several years, have made initial strides towards digitally transforming healthcare, including state-of-the-art health information systems and open-source telemedicine platforms.

Montenegro, for example, improved its healthcare ranking in only two years, moving from 34th to 23rd in the European Core Health Indicators (ECHI), among others, by implementing fundamental reforms that significantly reduced waiting times.

Furthermore, as highlighted in the European Healthcare Consumer Index 2018 (EHCI 2018), Montenegro has been very successful in reducing child mortality, ranking first in Europe (with mortality 1.3 in 1000 births). Birth mortality is also relatively low in Latvia and Lithuania.

The WHO/Europe Western Balkans Digital Health Network will help to support the work and commitments of the upcoming Western Balkans Health Roadmap 2021–2025.

Besides, it will accelerate the digitalization of national health systems and the development of equitable digital health services and promote knowledge sharing and the identification of best practices.

This will ensure that digital health actions are anchored in public health priorities and will accelerate the implementation of WHO’s European Programme of Work 2020–2025 – “United Action for Better Health in Europe.”

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