The dawn of digital public health in Europe:
Implications for public health policy and practice
Brian Li Han Wong,
Robin van Kessel,
on behalf of the European Public Health Association (EUPHA) Digital Health Section
Secretariat, The Lancet and Financial Times Commission on Governing Health Futures 2030: Growing up in a digital world,
Global Health Centre, The Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland
Medical Research Council Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL, Department of Population Science and Experimental
Medicine, UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science, University College London, London, UK
Digital Health Section, European Public Health Association (EUPHA), Utrecht, The Netherlands
Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region (ASPHER), Brussels, Belgium
Leibniz Science Campus Digital Public Health Bremen (LSC), Bremen, Germany
Research Center on Inequality and Social Policy (socium), Bremen, Germany
East London NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK
Department of Public Health and Primary Care, Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
Department of International Health, Care and Public Health Research Institute (CAPHRI), Maastricht University, Maastricht,
Studio Europa, Maastricht University, Maastricht, Netherlands
Department of Public Health, Experimental and Forensic Medicine, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy
School of Medicine, Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milan, Italy
Ministry for Health, Malta
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital health technologies and the role of effective sur-
veillance systems. While recent events have accelerated progress towards the expansion of digital public health
(DPH), there remains signiﬁcant untapped potential in harnessing, leveraging, and repurposing digital technologies
for public health. There is a particularly growing need for comprehensive action to prepare citizens for DPH, to regu-
late and effectively evaluate DPH, and adopt DPH strategies as part of health policy and services to optimise health
systems improvement. As representatives of the European Public Health Association's (EUPHA) Digital Health Sec-
tion, we reﬂect on the current state of DPH, share our understanding at the European level, and determine how the
application of DPH has developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also discuss the opportunities, challenges,
and implications of the increasing digitalisation of public health in Europe.
Copyright Ó2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND
Keywords: Digital health; Digital public health; Europe; Public health; Digital transformations
The Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic
is among the most severe crises facing society this cen-
tury. The rapid speed of transmission has forced coun-
tries to adapt their national healthcare systems at an
unprecedented rate. With remote work, surveillance,
and care delivery as new societal norms, there has
been an ever-increasing spotlight on digital health
COVID-19 has emphasised the impor-
tance of establishing effective surveillance systems for
public health at all levels.
Governments must adopt
digital public health (DPH) strategies in their national
health policy and healthcare to coordinate and manage
As representatives of the European
Public Health Association's (EUPHA) Digital Health
Section, we share our understanding of DPH at the
European level. In this viewpoint, we reﬂect on the
understanding and application of DPH during the
COVID-19 pandemic and in a wider context, as well as
discuss the opportunities, challenges, and implications
Abbreviations: EUPHA, European Public Health Association;
DPH, Digital public health; UHC, Universal health coverage;
ICT, Information and communications technologies; RCT,
Randomised control trial; WHO, World Health Organization;
UNICEF/ERACO, United Nations Children’s Fund/Europe
and Central Asia Regional Ofﬁce; UK, United Kingdom; NHS,
National Health Service; PHWF, Public health workforce;
GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation; UN, United
E-mail address: email@example.com (L. Maa).
The Lancet Regional
Health - Europe
Published online xxx
www.thelancet.com Vol 14 Month March, 2022 1
of the increasing digitalisation of public health in
As a discipline, ‘public health’ traces back to the
beginnings of human civilisation when communities
ﬁrst started promoting health and combating diseases.
Contemporary public health has undergone rapid trans-
formations to respond to modern threats and opportuni-
ties. Among these are the digital transformations of the
health sector, which have led to the establishment of
‘digital health’ with a vital role in strengthening health
systems, increasing equity in access to health services,
and working towards universal health coverage (UHC).
More recently, these digital transformations have given
rise to the concept of ‘digital public health’.
cept combines the already deﬁned terms of ‘public
health’ and ‘digital health’ (Box 1) and is not considered
a novel ﬁeld of itself, but the adoption of digital tools to
achieve public health goals, such as preventing disease,
empowering citizens, promoting value-based health-
care, or achieving UHC.
The central aim of DPH is
to improve the health of populations from the individual
to the population level by using information and com-
munications technologies (ICT).
This is one of the
key factors differentiating DPH from 'digital health', the
latter being predominantly focused on individual
Evidence- and needs-based approaches should
An inclusive, participa-
tory approach to designing, developing, and implement-
ing digital technologies will improve not only their
acceptance but also their effectiveness.
nologies must ensure that inequalities are not exacer-
bated due to varied access to and/or competence of a
digital intervention amongst different demographic
Interventions in DPH should collect data for
public health surveillance, whether it be for public
health emergencies or monitoring risk factors for wide-
spread diseases at the population level.
Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have
seen glimpses of the transformational potential of DPH
to accelerate responses to various public health emer-
gencies (Box 2). The perception of digital health tools
rapidly moved from being seen as “opportunities” to
“necessities”, which kickstarted a sequence of rapid
developments in the healthcare and public health
domains −that still retained their pre-digital structures
and were stagnated and eroded:
changes to policy
and regulation facilitated rapid changes to reimburse-
ment, training for health professionals, and unprece-
dented investment in technical infrastructure.
countries and communities have effectively leveraged
pre-pandemic digital investments in public health and
applied them to their pandemic management.
development and adoption of digital technologies made
critical contributions to many public health functions:
epidemiological surveillance, contact tracing, case iden-
tiﬁcation, mass immunisation service delivery, and pub-
One of the domains of DPH impact is epidemiologi-
cal surveillance. The development of tools for interna-
tional real-time public health data has supported
policymakers in planning and reﬁning containment
strategies. These tools allowed for the evaluation of the
real-time effectiveness of interventions. Concerning
community transmission, the possibility to collect loca-
tion data (GPS) and proximity data (Bluetooth) from
mobile devices pushed several countries to support the
development of digital contact tracing apps. These apps
speed up contact tracing and quarantining contacts.
Another relevant ﬁeld to pandemic response con-
cerns public education. Digital platforms of health
authorities and national agencies use the Internet to
enable a rapid engagement and education of the popula-
tion through prompt dissemination of trusted and tai-
lored public health information, limiting at the same
time the visibility of news from unreliable sources.
System readiness for digital public health
The conceptualisation of digital health in Box 1 already
alluded to the notion that digital health is part of the
overarching health ecosystem. Over the course of the
COVID-19 pandemic, the health ecosystem has digital-
ised out of a need to survive rather than a desire to inno-
vate; this is indicated by the rapid shift from a
traditional to a digital paradigm and subsequent series
of changes when COVID-19 became a pandemic.
However, this widespread digital transformation also
allowed the risks and beneﬁts of digital health services
to be experienced in an unprecedented manner and
data on the efﬁcacy and efﬁciency of digital health serv-
ices to be gathered. As a result, the digital health
Health Health is deﬁned as "a state of complete physical,
mental and social well-being and not merely the
absence of disease or inﬁrmity" by the constitu-
tion of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Public Health Public health is conceptualised as "the art and sci-
ence of preventing disease, prolonging life and
promoting health through the organised efforts
of society" by Acheson in 1988.
Digital Health Digital health is framed as the "the convergence of
the digital and genomic revolutions with health,
health care, living, and society" by Paul Sonnier
in his 2017 book The Fourth Wave: Digital
Digital health, as a concept, can refer
to a technology, a user experience, a service, a
product, a process, an ecological system of itself,
and part of the ecological system of health
Box 1: The respective conceptualisations of health, public
health, and digital health.
2 www.thelancet.com Vol 14 Month March, 2022
literature −previously on the scarcer end in terms of
longitudinal articles −is slowly growing richer and
more diverse as more health sub-domains experiment
with the capabilities of digital health.
The results of digital health services are slowly
becoming more apparent in various domains. For
instance, in a study of 143 people aged 10-17 with
chronic pain, people using the WebMAP Mobile App
perceived greater improvements post-treatment
(Cohen'sd:0¢54; P <0¢001) and at a 3-month follow-up
(Cohen'sd:0¢44; P = 0¢001). It also emphasised the
importance of patients remaining engaged in their treat-
ment process. Greater engagement was associated with
signiﬁcantly greater reductions in pain and disability
from pre-treatment to post-treatment (Cohen's
d=0¢57; P <0¢01) and follow-up (Cohen'sd=0¢38,
A non-randomised control trial of 1064 par-
ticipants testing the effectiveness of digital health inter-
ventions in preventing readmission after an acute
myocardial infarction showed that the digital health
intervention group had fewer all-cause 30-day readmis-
sions compared to the control group (6¢5% compared to
16¢8%). After adjustments, the digital health interven-
tion group was found to have a 52% reduced risk of
readmission (hazard ratio: 0¢48; 95% CI: 0¢26−0¢88).
Finally, a multicenter RCT of 891 participants at moder-
ate to high risk of cardiovascular disease evaluated the
effect of a consumer-focused digital health intervention
on guideline-recommended medication adherence, car-
diovascular risk factor control, and lifestyle behaviors at
one year. Although no difference was observed between
groups in medication adherence (RR: 1¢07; 95% CI:
0¢88-1¢20) and a miniscule improvement in attaining
risk factor targets (RR: 1¢40; 95% CI: 0¢97-2¢03), physi-
cal targets were attained signiﬁcantly more (87¢0%
intervention vs. 79¢7% control, P = 0¢02) and e-health
literacy developed more as well (72¢6% intervention vs.
64¢0% control, P = 0¢02).
While these examples are more in line with digital
health services at the individual level than at the popula-
tion level, it is important to acknowledge that −in order
for new or repurposed DPH tools to be taken up at
larger scale −the receiving system needs to be ready to
assimilate the innovation, both in terms of technological
compatibility and restructuring of work processes and
System readiness, in this line of reason-
ing, is fostered by exposure to and awareness of success-
ful innovations in either the same domain elsewhere or
COVID-19 HealthBuddy+: a chatbot created through a joint initiative of the WHO/Europe and the United Nations Children’s Fund Europe and
Central Asia Regional Ofﬁce (UNICEF/ECARO). It is accessible in Europe and Central Asia and its goal is to provide access to up-to-
date and evidence-based information on COVID-19.
Digital epidemiological surveillance: an umbrella term for the so-called 'coronadashboards'that are created by European countries
to provide continually updated information on the state of COVID-19 in the respective country.
Primary care My Health: a personal space of digital health that allows the citizens of Catalonia to interact in a non-contact way with the Health
System of Catalonia. It facilitates its users to consult clinical reports, diagnoses and results of clinical analyses and tests that are
part of its medical history. Users can also access their current Medication Plan to go directly to the pharmacy, request a primary
care visit, or access various non-face-to-face care services (e.g. eConsult: a system that allows health professionals to ask health-
related questions, carry out procedures, and send documents).
AccuRx: a digital healthcare start-up supported by Innovate UK who developed and rolled out video consultation software that
enabled United Kingdom (UK) healthcare providers to communicate remotely with their patients, thus minimising infection risk
from seeing patients with COVID-19. Within a few months, it was used to conduct over one million video consultations and was
used in 6700 GP practices. It protected National Health Service (NHS) professionals and patients and increased NHS efﬁciency,
saving each user approximately 40 minutes per day.
Mental health Now I Can Do Heights: a software application by Oxford VR that seeks to help users with acrophobia overcome their fear of heights.
The application is for adults older than 18 years and designed to be used without a supporting therapist.
In a randomised con-
trol trial (RCT) of 100 participants, Now I Can Do Heights has demonstrated the capability of producing large clinical effects (mean
change of the Heights Interpretation Questionnaire score −24¢5 [SD 13¢1] in the VR group versus −1¢2[7¢3] in the control
GET.ON Mood Enhancer Prevention: a web-based, guided self-help intervention based on psychoeducation, problem-solving ther-
apy, and behavioral activation. In a RCT of 406 participants in Germany, GET.ON produced a hazard ratio of 0¢59 [95% CI: 0¢42-
0¢82] in participants with subthreshold depression. GET.ON could also potentially prevent one clinical case of major depressive
disorder within a 12 month period after 5¢9 sessions.
Obesity Esporti Family: a mobile application whose objective is to treat childhood obesity which allows sharing information among profes-
sionals, patients and families. It teaches kids and their families healthy habits and nutrition through gamiﬁcation and encourages
them to increase their level of physical activity. A two-month trial of 67 users in Murcia, Spain showed an overall 44¢4% reduction
in fast food consumption, 38% of users increased their weekly physical exercise, and 27% of users increased their sleep hours.
Box 2: Case examples of DPH services in Europe.
www.thelancet.com Vol 14 Month March, 2022 3
a different domain within the same overarching system
(i.e. healthcare or public health) and can occur at a
national, organisational, community, and individual
Another point to consider is the readiness of the gen-
eral population to structurally adopt digital health serv-
ices. According to a recent analysis of digital skills in
the European Union, there are clear discrepancies in
digital skills across the European regions: the majority
of highly digitally skilled people are found in the North-
ern and North-Western parts of Europe, while South-
Eastern Europe shows less than 20% of individuals
being highly digitally skilled. Certain population groups
also seem to fare more favourable in a digital world: peo-
ple who are younger, higher educated, male, live in
urban regions, are either a student or employed, or are
employed consistently report higher internet access and
These ﬁndings suggest that −if digital
health services were structurally introduced now −only
certain population groups would be able to beneﬁt from
these services. Ironically, population groups that could
potentially beneﬁt most from these innovations are the
ones that would experience the highest barriers to
access, creating a digital health paradox.
Opportunities & Challenges
While recent events have rapidly accelerated progress
towards the expansion of DPH, there remains signiﬁ-
cant untapped potential in harnessing, leveraging, and
repurposing digital technologies (and data) for public
health. International real-world data can boost large-
scale observational studies at the European level (thus
ameliorating current constraints presented by a lack of
high-quality data surrounding digital health and DPH
interventions), tackle cross-border epidemiological
questions, and accelerate the implementation of shared
European public health policies. However, the effective-
ness of the implemented strategies depends on the
active involvement of the population. That said, in order
for the population to become actively involved in DPH
and for DPH to improve the social health experience,
a more horizontal design of DPH needs to be normal-
ised and healthcare pathways need to be reconsidered
in light of existing and emerging technologies.
instance, a DPH initiative using the technology cur-
rently in use to detect information relating to COVID-
19 in social media posts could make use of the habit of
the general population to search for health-related infor-
mation through (social) media networks in order to pro-
vide them with contact details for relevant health
To develop these technologies, public
and private actors should not only ensure their techno-
logical infrastructure is compatible, but also align their
values, vision, and resources.
To fully embrace the potential of DPH, social deter-
minants also need to be considered to ensure access to
DPH for all population segments and overcome geo-
graphic and socioeconomic barriers to achieving good
health and well-being.
Digital connectivity is a
major prerequisite for accessing DPH and vast digital
divides in the European region continue to exist.
grating DPH into curricula and training remains of par-
amount importance to develop the capacity to support
the sustainable development of DPH systems and infra-
structure. Whether this is through the inclusion of
DPH modules within existing academic courses or
implementing additional educational initiatives, such a
focus is vital to identifying potential areas for future dig-
ital health uptake and the continual strengthening of
digital health systems.
Young professionals −namely, youth −constitute
an untapped resource within the public health work-
force (PHWF) and present a great opportunity for
strengthening both the digital health capacity and digi-
tal readiness of (public) health systems in which they
Additionally the involvement and
engagement of youth via multidisciplinary public-pri-
vate partnerships between academia, governments, civil
society, and other relevant stakeholder groups can fur-
ther strengthen governance processes related to DPH.
However, youth must be enfranchised to structurally
contribute to the promotion and adoption of DPH tech-
nologies (e.g. by means of digital health literacy initia-
tives) so that existing health inequalities and digital
divides are not exacerbated.
Only by harnessing the
digital potential of the current and future generation of
the PHWF can DPH interventions achieve maximum
uptake and spread across Europe.
A key challenge to the effective implementation of
European DPH strategies is the concept of interopera-
bility (Box 3).
Interoperability requires a shared tech-
nical, legal and organisational framework and is a
prerequisite for using digital tools and data-driven tech-
nologies to their full potential in the public health land-
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the
Interoperability refers to the ability of two or more systems or com-
ponents to exchange information and to use the information that
has been exchanged.
It can be construed as a wicked problem
as it can be deﬁned in multiple dimensions:
Technical interoperability: the basic data exchange capabilities
Structural or syntactic interoperability: two or more systems have
data formats that are compatible.
Semantic interoperability: two or more systems use a shared lan-
guage and terminology and can therefore understand, process,
and interpret each other’s data.
Organisational interoperability: the legal, political, and organisa-
tional facilitators of data exchange of two or more systems are
Box 3: The deﬁnition and dimensions of interoperability.
4 www.thelancet.com Vol 14 Month March, 2022
importance of timely access to health data in ensuring
the rapid development of digital tools (e.g. mobile
health apps, wearable sensors) to collect large volumes
of data. However, due to unstructured data and isolated
data infrastructures, it is challenging to combine data-
sets and run comprehensive analysis, severely limiting
the ultimate potential of these technologies from a pub-
lic health perspective.
Pursuing interoperability −especially cross-country
−requires data protection to be considered. The Gen-
eral Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) established
requirements that data operators have to comply with,
which are more stringent when dealing with personal
As such, interoperability must be in compliance
with the current legal system, while digital health systems
should be designed prospectively to guarantee adherence
to data protection legislation.
That being said, with the
GDPR, the EU has set a precedent to legislate in the ﬁeld
of health data, which could enable them to create more tar-
geted legislation related to data protection and interopera-
bility. The recommendation of the European Commission
to adopt a standard format in their electronic health
records is a ﬁrst step in this process.
Implications for Policy & Practice
The extraordinary momentum and progress witnessed
worldwide regarding DPH led us to acknowledge the
broader implications for policy and practice extending
beyond the current public health emergency.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led us to recognise the
pivotal role of surveillance in deepening our under-
standing of infection transmission and identifying risk
factors for the disease to guide effective interventions.
Strengthening digital epidemiological surveillance
through digital tools to support operations (e.g. case
identiﬁcation, contact tracing, and other strategies for
pandemic control) represent perhaps the most crucial
area of DPH in the future epidemic preparedness and
more widely. Increased recognition of the role of non-
health data in providing novel insights for public health
remains a signiﬁcant step to ensuring DPH interven-
tions reﬂect the ﬁeld’s interdisciplinary nature.
contains developing ways of systematically integrating
data sources, including social media data, mobility data,
and survey data, into DPH surveillance and monitoring
From a top-down perspective, the effectiveness of
DPH interventions fundamentally rests upon their abil-
ity to be communicated to individuals.
vidual decisions and behaviour towards effective public
health practices through timely and targeted communi-
cation strategies remains a pivotal role of DPH. This
will enable the success of digital interventions and in
the broader public health ﬁeld more generally.
interventions would limit existing divergences and
accelerate the path towards two critical goals of DPH
technologies: (1) optimisation of healthcare services pro-
vision and patients'accessibility to health data (primary
use of health data) and (2) implementation of research,
policymaking, and regulatory activities (secondary use
of health data). In contrast, DPH interventions should
be designed with the individual at the centre of the
design process, meaning a comprehensive focus on
understanding the factors that support people (profes-
sionals and patients) to use technology should be
included and the importance of cultural and organisa-
tional change recognised.
As the generation which stands to gain −or lose −
the most from digital transformations in health, youth
must be enfranchised (e.g. through digital literacy initia-
tives) to contribute to policymaking processes. Youth
can simultaneously play a key role in enabling and
enriching policy initiatives by helping to increase the
uptake and spread of digital transformations across
demographics. One such example is the work of the
recently adopted United Nations (UN) Convention on
the Rights of the Child general comment No. 25 (2021)
setting out children’s rights in the digital world, in
which children and young people were consulted at
Another example is the work of The
Lancet and Financial Times Commission on Governing
health futures 2030: growing up in a digital world (here-
after “GHFutures2030”), which set a new benchmark
for meaningfully including youth in the design, devel-
opment, implementation, and evaluation of digital
health policies, programmes, and services.
There is a growing need for coordinated, multidisciplin-
ary approaches and strategies for regulating, evaluating,
and using digital technologies, particularly in the con-
text of public health emergencies.
Moreover, there are
broader implications for applying DPH measures,
which extend beyond the epidemiological management
of COVID-19 (e.g. other concurrent public health crises
like domestic violence).
Such applications can help
improve the efﬁciency and effectiveness of public health
prevention, surveillance, and responses. To safeguard
health futures for generations to come, governments,
stakeholders, and experts need a concerted effort to
establish an appropriate technical, legal, and gover-
nance framework, as proposed by the GHFutures2030
This will lead to interoperable systems
and accessible health information by accessing and
exchanging health data. We call upon all stakeholders to
show political commitments, set up a normative and
regulatory framework supported by technical infrastruc-
ture and sustainable ﬁnancial investments. To trans-
form this journey into a sustainable and long-term
reality we also believe that academic and private institu-
tions need to invest in training, education, research,
and collaboration with national and regional authorities
www.thelancet.com Vol 14 Month March, 2022 5
to establish robust monitoring and evaluation to sup-
port continuous improvement efforts.
Declaration of interests
All authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclo-
sure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf and
declare: no support from any organisation for the sub-
mitted work (except the research grants listed in fund-
ing); no ﬁnancial relationships with any organisations
that might have an interest in the submitted work in the
previous three years; no other relationships or activities
that could appear to have inﬂuenced the submitted
The corresponding author conﬁrms that all listed
authors meet authorship criteria and that no others
meeting the criteria have been omitted. The contribu-
tions of all authors are outlined using the CRediT state-
ment. BLHW: Conceptualisation, Investigation, Formal
Analysis, Writing - Original Draft, Writing - Review &
Editing, Supervision. LM: Investigation, Formal Analy-
sis, Writing - Original Draft. AV: Investigation, Formal
Analysis, Writing - Original Draft. RVK: Investigation,
Formal Analysis, Visualisation, Writing - Review & Edit-
ing. SS: Investigation, Formal Analysis, Writing - Origi-
nal Draft. SB: Investigation, Formal Analysis, Writing -
Original Draft. AO: Investigation, Formal Analysis,
Writing - Original Draft.
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