Pandemic preparedness is a national security issue, say experts at HIMSS21

LAS VEGAS – One year ago this week, a group of digital health experts formulated the Riyadh Declaration on Digital Health, which outlined priorities and recommendations for the global health community in response to COVID-19 and other future pandemics.

But in order to see meaningful change, those priorities must be turned into concrete action, said panelists who gathered at a HIMSS21 “view from the top” panel on Tuesday.  

Convened by HIMSS VP of Government Relations Tom Leary, the panelists – who played a critical role in developing the Riyadh Declaration – reviewed the recommendations, compared them to progress so far and outlined digital health goals for the future.  

“Digital public health is clearly what really matters these days,” said His Excellency Dr. Bandar Al Knawy, chief executive officer of the Ministry of National Guard – Health Affairs in Saudi Arabia.   

“The future is digital,” Al Knawy continued.  

After recapping the nine recommendations set forth in the Riyadh Declaration, Al Knawy emphasized the importance of digital epidemiology tools, saying they must be considered within a comprehensive public health infrastructure.  

“We’ll need to consider digital health preparedness and response to any pandemic as a national and international security issue,” he said.  

Dr. David Bates, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, compared the priorities set out by the declaration to the real-world response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the United States.  

He pointed out that the U.S. mortality rate from COVID-19 was 2.8 times that of Canada, driven in part by a lackluster approach from the national government.   

“Federal leadership in the U.S, especially from the president, did not follow some of the recommendations of public health officials,” said Bates.

Regarding the novel coronavirus, Bates observed that disinformation was common, that systems were unprepared to report high-quality public health data centrally, that surveillance systems were not global or adequate, especially early on, and that there was a massive demand for personal digital tools that was hard to meet.   

He said that while the workforce was well trained, and digital health was prioritized, the pandemic still came as a shock.  

When it came to more specific digital health innovations, Bates reviewed progress about applied health intelligence, cloud computing, artificial intelligence – which he predicted will see a boost in the next five years – and telehealth.   

“Healthcare systems clearly need to invest in digital solutions, especially in terms of enabling access to data and analytics,” he said.  

Louise Schaper, chief executive officer of the Australasian Digital Health Institute, summed up the digital health landscape with two words: “Money talks!”  

She pointed to recent reports from Rock Health, showing that more funds were invested in the first six months of 2021 than in the entirety of 2020.   

“To say there’s a lot of money being invested in digital health … is pretty much a massive understatement,” said Schaper.   

She outlined the seven priorities from the Riyadh Declaration, noting several places – such as communication, interoperability and data transparency – that still need to improve throughout the world.

Now that concrete guidance has been established, the panelists said continued action is needed.  

According to Al Knawy, several agencies, including the World Health Organization and World Bank, have been in conversation about concrete strategies to implement at least some of the recommendations.

“Unless we all work together to do this, again it will be just another document,” he said.


Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Email: [email protected]
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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