by Thomas Macaulay

World Health Organisation CIO Bernardo Mariano explains how tech can boost global health

May 08, 2019
IT StrategyMobile Apps


As CIO of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Bernardo Mariano is responsible for the IT strategy at a United Nations agency that aims to attain the highest possible level of health for all citizens in its 194 member states.

His key objectives are to deliver the WHO’s global strategy on digital health and to provide guidelines to countries on how to navigate their digital transformation journeys.

“We will do that by bringing together all the national regulatory agencies from the countries that have them and then start discussing issues such as AI regulation and sharing our experiences,” Mariano tells CIO UK from the AI Everything conference in Dubai.

“Some agencies have already implemented digital strategies and others have not, so we have to cross-fertilise ideas among the different regulatory agencies to make sure that they all are able to deal with and handle the added power but also maintain the quality of the healthcare existing ecosystem.”

To help its member states to achieve this, the WHO recently released its first recommendations for digital health tech use. They outline how nations can use tech to improve the health of citizens by providing proper training, securing data and coordinating systems with other digital health resources, while taking into account infrastructural limitations.

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The WHO has also developed the Digital Health Atlas, an open-source web platform designed to help all global stakeholders coordinate digital health activities by offering the information they need to improve their planning, coordination and use of digital health information systems for health.

These initiatives aim to balance are designed to reap the benefits of new technologies while minimising the risks of them being misused.

“Instead of being risk-averse, we need to allow governments to design policies that will not block them but would also not create a situation such as that in the digital transformations in the media sector, where the lack of regulation has created sicknesses and situations that are impacting health,” says Mariano.

“The anti-vaccine movement, for instance, has led to the resurgence of measles. So how we could strike the right balance to allow and promote and use the evolution and development of digital technologies for health, but even more importantly, to really realise positive health outcomes?”

Global goals

As a global body that represents 194 nations, the WHO has to support an enormous variety of complex needs. In the world of digital healthcare, the most developed countries aren’t always the most mature.

“You would expect the digital transformation of countries such as US or UK to be at the forefront, but one of the countries that are leading on digital transformation is Estonia,” says Mariano. “They have leapfrogged many countries through digital transformation – not only in the healthcare sector, but also in many other sectors of the country.”

To serve the different needs of nations, the WHO creates a country plan to implement the healthcare strategy.

“In Estonia, the country might need a strategy to address their electronic health record. They might need interoperability of health records and systems,” Mariano explains. “For each country, the implementation of the strategy will need to take into consideration the country’s needs, the maturity of the technology, and of course, it has to be people-centric.”

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The WHO mostly works with governments to develop these strategies, but Mariano admits that it has a lot to learn from the private sector, which is what led him to travel from the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to the AI Everything conference in Dubai.

“We want to work with the private sector to really help develop guidelines and policies that would allow the whole community or the whole ecosystem to realise the full benefits of digital health,” he says.

“The WHO and its member states countries are catching up with the pace, but the private sector is ahead of the public sector and governments. In addition to interacting, there’s also a learning process that goes both ways to make sure that we all deliver the right balance of regulations, and that together we can deliver the best health outcomes.”

Mariano recently added another duty to his role, when the WHO announced the establishment of a digital health department, which Mariano will help to set up.

AI is one of the key technologies that the department will explore. Mariano is working with the WHO member states to ensure that AI aligns with their national needs, and with policymakers to develop legislation that maximises the benefits of AI for citizens while protecting the data and human rights.

“AI will certainly change that in a way that will require not only good governance of the technology, but also the reskilling or capacity building of the healthcare practitioner, as well as education of the public in terms of their data,” he says.