Bridging the Gap in Digital Health: A New Chapter for the GDHP under Dutch and Portuguese Leadership

“We must change the way we deliver healthcare. And it only makes sense to do it together. So join and engage!” Abigail Norville, deputy secretary general of the Netherlands Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS), and representing the Netherlands as chair of the Global Digital Health Partnership (GDHP), has a clear message at the onset of the Netherlands’ leadership term in collaboration with Portugal, as vice chair.

Aging populations, escalating healthcare costs and the ever-ongoing administrative burdens and professional shortages. Societies worldwide grapple with the same challenges in designing and delivering digital health services to ensure sustainable and high quality healthcare for all. To confront these issues, the GDHP facilitates collaboration and knowledge-sharing among a growing number of member states and multinational organizations. On January 1st 2024, the leadership baton was passed from the United States to the Netherlands, with the latter advancing from vice chair to chair, and Portugal appointed as the new vice chair. They bring to the table ambitious goals, charting a course towards further enhancing digital health services worldwide.

Building bridges
“Our main objective is to build bridges,” says Norville. “Bridges between national strategies on digital health and the international agendas that directly impact the capability to execute them.” At the heart of this approach will be a focus on semantic and technical interoperability and on enhancing GDHP members’ abilities to govern the digital health ecosystems within their jurisdictions. “We will also focus on patient and professional engagement,” Norville adds. “Because to create digital health services that work, it’s imperative that we also listen to professionals and – potential – patients.”

Showing the world the GDHP is here
Delving into the specifics of how the Netherlands, an active member of the GDHP since 2018, plans to realize this vision, is deputy chair Bianca Rouwenhorst, director Health Information Policy at the Dutch health ministry. “Strategically this means we want to strengthen GDHP’s profile globally, promote national profiles within the GDHP, increase global influence of GDHP members and bring in more active members with new valuable insights and input. Because that’s how we can create the desired impact.”

Global health is everyone’s health
Equally committed to the global digital health agenda and actively engaged in the GDHP since early 2019, Portugal, as the new vice chair, will focus on initiatives to further enhance the strategy for international collaboration in digital health, promote the exchange of best practices, and contribute to the development and implementation of standards for global digital health interoperability. 

“Global health is our nation´s health and digital is a part of it,” Nuno Costa, member of the Executive Administrative Board of the Portuguese Shared Services of the Ministry of Health (SPMS), and representing Portugal as vice chair, succinctly states.

Personal network of like-minded people
As expanding GDHP membership is a key goal of Dutch leadership, Norville can’t emphasize enough the benefits to be gained from membership. “Because we are a group of national authorities and expertsdealing with similar issues, we also face similar challenges. How do we address privacy? How do we work on availability? How do we achieve interoperability? Because of this immediate common understanding of the context, people in our network feel free to exchange ideas and experiences openly and honestly. And to not only focus on the successes but also on the set-backs. This makes the GDHP an incredibly powerful, constructive network, where a quick personal call can lead to valuable insights and immediate solutions.”

Unique platform of knowledge and best practices
“The GDHP provides a unique platform of knowledge and best practices for governments in digital health,” Costa adds in confirmation. “Countries can share their experiences, successes, and challenges, enabling mutual learning and accelerating the adoption of effective strategies and solutions. In that way the GDHP can be of major value for the objectives of national digital health strategies and ensure global digital pathways for public health interventions.” 

Tangible results
“Through the GDHP, we’ve already seen firsthand the power of international collaboration,” Rouwenhorst continues. “For instance, we modeled our National Vision and Strategy for the Health Information System after a similar model already in place in New Zealand. And Canada, for its interoperability legislation, is drawing inspiration from our Law on Electronic Data Exchange (Wegiz).”

Invitation to join
The Netherlands and Portugal are extending an open invitation for other countries to become part of the initiative. Norville: “Our goal is to make the GDHP’s work as relevant as possible by ensuring a diverse range of voices and experiences. Embracing diversity is key in addressing the broad spectrum of digital health challenges.”

“That’s why we’re actively seeking to expand our membership to also include lower and middle-income countries, small states, and non-English speaking nations from regions like Africa, South America, Oceania, and the Caribbean,” adds Portuguese deputy vice chair Cátia Sousa Pinto, doctor of medicine and head of Global Digital Health and International Affairs at SPMS. “We ask no financial contributions, only active participation and engagement in our shared mission.”

Embracing active participation
“A song that always resonates with me is Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’,” Norville concludes. “It’s not just a protest song; it’s about progress and the necessity of active participation over passive observation. I see it as a reminder for all of us, current and future GDHP members: we are part of the Digital Revolution and we must participate in it.”

The GDHP is growing and becoming increasingly relevant. As a result, more is being demanded of its leadership. To ensure continuity, both the chairperson and the vice chairperson for The Netherlands and Portugal have a deputy.