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  • Equity must be at the center of national policy so that digital health does not exacerbate existing inequalities.
  • The ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission Working Group on Virtual Health and Care provides best practices in this area.
  • Rwanda and Chile are examples that prove that health and equity can be achieved outside of high-income countries.

It seems self-evident that the virtual provision of health and care services, that is, the provision of remote access through digital means, will automatically make them more accessible to more people. You also hope that greater access will subsequently lead to health equity and better health outcomes for all.

But a new report prepared ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission Working Group on Virtual Health and Careco-chaired by World Health Organization and Novartis Foundationand developed with the support Accentureshows that placing justice at the center of national politics is vital to prevent the opposite.

Without proper policies, people risk missing out on the benefits of virtual health and care due to factors such as income level, age, gender, race, disability, or access to broadband internet. This could lead to virtual health and care perpetuating or even exacerbating existing inequalities.

We published full set of recommendations from the Broadband Commission Working Group on how countries can ensure access to healthcare and equity through virtual healthcare and care on June 6th, but here is an example of good national practice that we can learn from:

one. Rwanda public health insurance

We can turn to Rwanda as a great example of a policy that helps ensure that people have access to virtual health and care services, regardless of their economic status.

The Community Health Insurance Scheme covers health care costs for all Rwandans, with premiums based on people’s socioeconomic status. Membership extends to both virtual health and care services and personal care, with Rwanda being one of the few countries to compensate virtual services in such a comprehensive manner. As of 2020, it covered 88% of the population.

2. Chile Digital Hospitals

On the other side of the world, an initiative in Chile shows how virtual services can be used to close the health care gap between urban and rural areas, allowing rural communities to access skilled care remotely through digital hospitals.

Launched in 2019 by the government of Chile to accelerate the early detection of serious illnesses, digital hospitals enable rural residents to undergo radiological examinations and access specialized medical services through the virtual exchange of medical information.

3. US opens access to medical care across state lines

The US has also taken steps to help patients in rural areas better access specialized services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, several US states have revised their healthcare and healthcare provider licensing policies to allow virtual delivery across state lines. Previously, people had to travel to city centers to get expert advice. The current plan is to make these changes permanent through appropriate policies.

four. Increasing equity for New Zealand’s minorities

New Zealand is leading the way in policies to ensure that virtual services reduce disparities for minorities through health care reforms to ensure the representation of the indigenous Maori population.

The reformed governance structure includes provisions to provide more virtual and digital services, such as phone and video consultations, to people in homes and communities. Special funding has been made available to health and medical service providers to set up telecommuting mechanisms, including digital support services and a dedicated telemedicine service for the Maori population.

5. Inclusion of people with disabilities in Germany

Meanwhile, Germany provides an example of how to include the inclusion of people with disabilities in policy development.

Since 2000, health disparities have been implicitly mentioned in Germany’s national health goals. More recently, licensing requirements require digital health applications (including virtual delivery solutions) to offer support to people with visual, auditory, and motor disabilities, either by including assistive devices for people with disabilities or by supporting the assistive products offered by the platform.

6. UK Efforts for Inclusive Data Governance

UK policy is an example of how to make inclusion the foundation of virtual health and care.

The UK National Health Service recommends Data ethics framework to prevent unintended harm or discrimination that may benefit one group at the expense of others when developing solutions or providing health and care services. This framework guides the responsible use of data in government and the wider public sector for all those who directly or indirectly work with data, including virtual health and care data. It recommends a self-assessment model to assess fairness and address the potential for unintended discriminatory impacts on individuals and all social groups by identifying which aspects of the project need to be improved.

As you can see, the above examples apply not only to high-income countries, but also to low- and middle-income countries. This shows that virtual health and care can help improve access and inclusion for people around the world.

COVID-19 has exposed the digital divide worldwide and has exacerbated the digital divide. Most of the world lives in areas covered by a mobile broadband network, yet over a third (2.9 billion people) are still offline. Cost, not reach, is the barrier to connectivity.

At The Davos Agenda 2021, the World Economic Forum launched the EDISON Alliance, the first cross-industry alliance to accelerate digital adoption and connect critical economic sectors.

Through the 1 Billion Lives Challenge, the EDISON Alliance aims to improve the lives of 1 billion people worldwide by 2025 with affordable and accessible digital solutions in healthcare, financial services and education.

Find out more about the work of the EDISON Alliance in our success story.

The Virtual Health and Care Working Group of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development is partnering with the EDISON Alliance World Economic Forum to advance our shared mission of helping countries achieve health equity and inclusion through digital technologies. visit new Broadband Commission report to learn more about how virtual health and care can help ensure access and equity, and let us know what you think.

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