His forte is genetics but armed with his laptop, his passion has always been computers. This is how the Head of the Human Genetics Unit of the Colombo Medical Faculty, Prof. Vajira H.W. Dissanayake, came to be in the very thick of it when the Commonwealth Centre for Digital Health (CWCDH) was launched recently at [...]


Lankan doc heads Commonwealth Centre for Digital Health

Centre to help take health to poorest of the poor through modern technology - With Health Informaticians as Medical Specialists, Sri Lanka poised to be global leader – Prof. Dissanayake

His forte is genetics but armed with his laptop, his passion has always been computers.

In the picture (from left) are the Executive Director of the Global Health 2030 Innovation Taskforce, Denis Gilhooly; the President of the Commonwealth Medical Association, Prof. Vajira H.W. Dissanayake; the Director of the International Institute for Global Health, United Nations University (UNU), Malaysia, Dr. Pascale A. Allotey; President Maithripala Sirisena; the Chief Medical Officer of England, Prof. Dame Sally Davies; and the Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister of Malta, Dr. Christopher Fearne, at the launch of the CWCDH.

This is how the Head of the Human Genetics Unit of the Colombo Medical Faculty, Prof. Vajira H.W. Dissanayake, came to be in the very thick of it when the Commonwealth Centre for Digital Health (CWCDH) was launched recently at a prestigious event in London, United Kingdom (UK).

It was amidst many eminent leaders that the CWCDH was launched at the ‘Global Health Security & Digital Health Society 2030 — Innovation & Investment for One Planetary Health & Universal Health Coverage (UHC)’ at the Royal Over-Seas League (ROSL) in London on April 20. This was a side-event of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018.

What is ‘digital health’?

“It is the convergence of the ‘digital’ and ‘genomic’ revolutions with health, healthcare, living and society,” was the simple answer from Prof. Dissanayake to the Sunday Times.

Elaborating, he said, that digital health would empower people to better track, manage and improve their own and their family’s health and also to live better, more productive lives and thus improve society. It would also make health-care systems more efficient, effective and responsive, while focusing on health promotion (wellness), primary prevention and caring for patients in the community.

The CWCDH, with its ‘central hub’ in London and regional hubs spread across all continents, hopes to transform the scaling-up of sustainable health systems and solutions. Initially, the regional hubs will be in Sri Lanka, Uganda and Malta.

The CWCDH will be headed by Prof. Dissanayake who is also President of the Commonwealth Medical Association (CMA).

“Its vision is to strategically digitalize the health systems across the components identified in the Commonwealth’s Systems Framework for Health Policy (SFHP) to build sustainable health systems that act as a common good for all,” explained Prof. Dissanayake.

The SFHP, meanwhile, is a sustainable approach to implementing UHC and covers governance, knowledge, protection, promotion, prevention, people, advocacy and capacity.

According to Prof. Dissanayake the CWCDH will promote the provision of healthcare in a holistic manner and will support countries to look at the “entire picture”, as the promotion and provision of healthcare be it preventive or curative, cannot happen in isolation.

The universal goal of the CWCDH has been set as the creation of a more equitable market across the Commonwealth and incubation of digital health innovation and venture capital in the best places.

“We will help improve health systems,” he assures, citing the example of Sri Lanka which started biomedical and health informatics training for doctors as far back as 10 years ago. The country has 104 medical graduates with Master’s qualifications in this field with 50 more in training.

The first set of Consultant Health Informaticians will take up their posts in 2020. As such Sri Lanka is poised to be a global leader in this field, Prof. Dissanayake points out, explaining that so far, Health Informaticians as Medical Specialists are only found in America.

In London on April 20, the ‘Global Health Security & Digital Health Society 2030 — Innovation & Investment for One Planetary Health & UHC’ was co-chaired by Prof. Dissanayake and England’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof. Dame Sally Davies.

The panel discussion that followed the launch of the CWCDH was co-moderated by Dr. Pascale A. Allotey, Director, International Institute for Global Health, United Nations University, Malaysia and Denis Gilhooly, the Chief Strategy Officer of the CWCDH.

Among the distinguished participants at the event were President Maithripala Sirisena; Malta’s Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Dr. Christopher Fearne; Uganda’s Permanent Secretary for Health Dr. Diana Atwine; officials from the British, Australian and New Zealand governments; High Commissioners; Representatives of National Medical Associations of Commonwealth countries; and more than 100 representing various health professional organizations, international agencies, academia and industry.

Welcoming the establishment of the CWCDH with the focus on fostering innovative technologies for health apt for low-income countries, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has assured that the WHO “stands ready” to work with the CWCDH to harness the power of digital technologies for a healthier, safer and fairer world.

In a special message, he has said that as UHC is the WHO’s top priority, the aim is a world in which all people receive the high-quality health services they need without suffering financial hardship.

“This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Alma-Ata Declaration which highlighted the vital importance of primary healthcare. Primary care remains the foundation of UHC. But today we have an extra tool that we did not have 40 years ago, digital technology. Mobile technologies and telemedicine can make a huge difference in helping to reach people in the remotest villages with medical services,” he said, adding that digital technologies can also be used to detect and respond rapidly to outbreaks and other health emergencies, to train health workers and to improve health data.

At the World Health Assembly scheduled from May 20 to 26, in Geneva, Switzerland, Digital Health will be a side-event.

Pointing out that more than 120 countries including many Commonwealth states have now developed digital health strategies, the WHO Director-General has stressed that the “key” challenge is to make sure that new technologies are made to work for the poorest and the most vulnerable, not just the rich.

The series of events that saw the launch of the CWCDH began in 2016, when Prof. Dissanayake as President of the CMA, which links and strengthens national medical associations in the Commonwealth, proposed a Commonwealth Digital Health Initiative. It was at a time when the Commonwealth Health Secretariat was keen to promote digital health.

This was soon followed by the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Health meeting in Colombo in October 2016, with the first Commonwealth Conference on Digital Health being held simultaneously and ‘The Colombo Declaration – Plan for Collaborative Action’ with digital health being an integral component blossoming from it.
The programme of work of the CWCDH will be moved forward with the full support of the CMA, the Commonwealth Institute for Infrastructure Development, the Global Health 2030 Innovation Task Force and the Mobile Action on Pandemics (MAP) 2030.

“Digital health systems are an increasingly important component in the delivery of health services and care. A range of Commonwealth contributions is enabling our member countries to adopt such solutions. These facilitate more equitable access for all communities in accordance with the values and principles of our Commonwealth Charter,” the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Patricia Scotland QC, has said.

She adds that the CWCDH has the potential to make new opportunities and tools available to health professionals in member countries. Initiatives such as this exemplify the Commonwealth spirit of innovation which we encourage.

3rd Commonwealth Digital Health Conference and Awards in Colombo

Ambitious plans are on the table to hold the 3rd Commonwealth Digital Health Conference and Awards from October 7 to 12 in Colombo.

Partnering the Commonwealth Medical Association (CMA) in this initiative are the International Medical Informatics Association (IMIA), the Asia eHealth Information Network (AeHIN), and the Asia-Pacific Association of Medical Informatics.

“This will create an opportunity for worldwide participation under one roof,” said Prof. Vajira Dissanayake, inviting the medical profession, pharmaceutical companies, the IT and education sectors, professional associations and public and private hospitals to join him and his team.

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