What does it take to be an effective national steward of digital health integration for health systems strengthening in low- and middle-income countries?

Michael J. Frost, Jacqueline B. Tran, Fatema Khatun, Ingrid K Friberg, Daniela C. Rodríguez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Digital innovations have evolved over the last 15 years to support health activities, and their introduction in low- and middle-income countries has shown the potential to catalyze gains in health systems and service delivery. Despite widespread efforts to roll out these technologies, standardized approaches for formalizing national stewardship responsibilities and ensuring that digital health is a routine, mature, sustainable, and country-owned component of the health system are lacking. In this paper, we define digital health stewardship, with a focus on the ministry of health’s role; describe practices undertaken to date; and identify gaps where increased attention could improve sustainability, impact, and local ownership. Methods: We conducted a purposeful review of peer-reviewed and gray literature. Of the 404 identified resources from the peer-reviewed literature, 12 met all of the inclusion criteria. After searching various online gray literature repositories, we identified 6 sources based on their quality, source, and relevance. Selected resources were abstracted for relevance to our stewardship themes and synthesized. Results: Findings are presented in 4 broad thematic areas: strategic direction, policies and procedures, roles and responsibilities, and health service delivery implications. Evidence related to strategic direction offers guidance on the main responsibilities under digital health stewardship, including regulations and incentives to promote compliance with standards, mechanisms for oversight, and structures to support evidence-based decisions, and the potential institutional structures and goals that could be used to achieve them. A number of examples of high-level policies and implementation-oriented procedures, such as from the European Commission and the World Health Organization, demonstrate how to operationalize the strategic direction. Available evidence for the remaining themes was sparse, drawing attention to key areas for future work. Conclusions: Despite the importance of country-owned stewardship of digital health, the guidance available is limited and aspirational. Concrete recommendations, including how to adapt existing innovations to the local context, are needed. In particular, the role of external partners needs to be oriented toward building and supporting country capacity to achieve digital health stewardship’s potential to support health systems into the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S18-S28
JournalGlobal Health Science and Practice
StatePublished - Oct 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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