WHO/Europe, the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the University of Washington’s International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) have launched the Informatics and Data Science for Health (IDASH) fellowship in countries of eastern Europe and central Asia to improve public health informatics and data science practices.
Through this powerful collaboration, WHO/Europe aims to support countries to better govern digital transformation in the health sector and advance digital health literacy – key objectives of the Digital Health Action Plan for the WHO European Region 2023–2030. Adopted by all 53 countries of the Region, the Action Plan serves as a roadmap to improve people’s health and well-being through digital technologies.
Urgent need for trained professionals who can manage data and health information systems
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the critical importance of robust and integrated electronic data systems and their ability to guide public health action.
“Health information systems generate vast amounts of data on every individual’s interaction with the health-care system, including their health status, diagnoses, treatments and outcomes,” said WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge. “These large volumes of health data, also known as big data, can be analysed and leveraged to identify patterns that inform evidence-based policy-making, allowing for resources to be allocated more effectively, improving health-care quality and outcomes, and addressing public health concerns proactively.”
There is, however, a global shortage of technical leadership to provide the fundamentals of public health informatics to support disease surveillance and response and control of priority chronic and endemic infectious diseases.
“Equity must be the guiding principle in our efforts for digital transformation in health care; otherwise, we risk merely perpetuating real-world inequalities in the digital world. That’s why systematic investments in the existing and future workforce for digital health and data modernization are needed if we hope to make our health systems fit for the 21st century,” concluded Dr Kluge.
Dr David Novillo-Ortiz, Regional Adviser on Data and Digital Health at WHO/Europe, emphasized, “To ensure a more robust response to future emergencies, which are arriving faster than ever before, we must address the shortage of skilled professionals in this area. Our partnership with the CDC to launch a training programme in the WHO European Region is a crucial step towards bridging this gap. We are optimistic that this collaboration will go a long way in equipping countries with the necessary tools and expertise to effectively leverage data and improve their pandemic response capabilities and public health outcomes.”
First cohort of fellows selected from Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan
The first cohort of 20 fellows, which includes technical, analytical and public health staff working at the national level in public health informatics or data science, has already been identified for this 12-month, in-service training programme to develop IDASH champions.
Mr Steven Becknell, Deputy Regional Director for the CDC’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office, noted, “The launch of this fellowship programme is an important milestone for strengthening our collective health security. The support and engagement of ministries of health in eastern Europe and central Asia to design and implement IDASH are clear indications of their commitment to strengthening country capabilities for the collection and use of information to protect individual health, strengthen health systems and ultimately save lives.”
Priorities identified for the IDASH fellows include:
- automating data analysis and visualization for diseases
- expanding digital immunization registries beyond COVID-19
- developing united business-intelligence platforms for disease surveillance data analysis
- advancing electronic reporting systems
- developing spatial analysis modules for multi-disease surveillance and response.
This initiative responds to the significant challenges WHO faces in achieving its goals of advancing universal health coverage, safeguarding people during emergencies, and enhancing health and well-being in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It recognizes the power of leveraging digital solutions to enhance health systems and services and reduce health inequalities.