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The Digital Health Revolution: Leveraging Intellectual Property for Equitable Access and Innovation

August 4, 2023


From enabling on-the-spot testing for diseases like diabetes and malaria through digital diagnostics to revolutionizing medical manufacturing with 3-D printing for personalized medical devices, digital health is transforming the way people access and receive healthcare services. The result: a healthier population. As the digital health industry continues to grow, intellectual property (IP) has become increasingly important for the sector and can be used to foster collaboration and drive innovation in digital healthcare. But much work remains to be done to make digital health solutions ubiquitous, ensuring equitable access despite the “digital divide”.

What is Digital Health?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines digital health in its Digital Health Strategy (2020-2025) as the utilization of digital technologies and data to enhance health outcomes, improve health system performance, and empower individuals to make informed decisions about their health and well-being. It also emphasizes principles of transparency, accessibility, scalability, replicability, interoperability, privacy, security, and confidentiality.

The scope of digital health is rapidly expanding, encompassing mobile health (mHealth) applications, wearable devices, telemedicine, electronic health records, health information systems, and artificial intelligence (AI). These technologies save lives. A recent study showed that the implementation of wearable AI, which encompasses technologies like smartwatches equipped with AI algorithms to monitor health in real-time, could potentially save nearly 400,000 lives in Europe, leading to an annual cost savings of 200 billion EUR. And with a global count of over 100 digital health-tech unicorns, the sector is evidently profitable.

The COVID-19 pandemic stimulated greater adoption of digital health in many parts of the world, extending healthcare access beyond traditional means. Digital platforms facilitated contact-tracing efforts and aided in containing the virus's spread. Remote care services surged, enabling patients to receive essential medical guidance and support from the safety of their homes.

Rapid deployment of digital technologies like contact tracing software offered opportunities to bridge health inequities. For digital healthcare to be effectively implemented and accessible to all, sharing knowledge, collaborating on IP, and knowledge-transfer are crucial in advancing scientific discovery and equitable sharing of the benefits of scientific advancements and applications.

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What role does IP play in supporting Digital Health?

IP underpins digital health. It provides coverage to protect the innovation of scientists and entrepreneurs while also facilitating easier access for users to benefit from these advancements. Whether it is an innovative software algorithm for remote patient monitoring or a mobile application that offers personalized fitness plans and health tracking features, IP assures that unique and game-changing digital health solutions can be created and made widely available to improve healthcare outcomes of people across the world. By protecting and promoting creativity and innovation in digital health, IP also supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), including SDG3 “Good Health and Well-being” and SDG9 on “industry, innovation and infrastructure”.

Patent, trade secrets, copyright

While digital health products often include parts that can be patented, such as chemical, electrical, or mechanical components, protecting technology-based components can pose challenges due to their intangible and complex nature. In some jurisdictions, obtaining patent rights for data analysis methods may take a considerable amount of time, resulting in the innovators opting for trade secret protection to safeguard their digital health inventions. This approach ensures confidentiality and aligns well with the rapid evolution of technology and the dynamic nature of digital health companies. Additionally, safeguarding digital health software, databases, or documentation is essential to avoid unauthorized use of these valuable assets.

Other IPs that protect digital health

Other kinds of IP also hold significance in the field of digital health. Trademarks play a crucial role in safeguarding brand names and logos, ensuring businesses can distinguish themselves in the market. Distinctive product appearances are protected by design, while distinctive visual designs are preserved by trade dress, giving businesses a competitive edge in the market.

Data protection in digital health

Data is the backbone of digital health. Digital healthcare products frequently collect and store patient information, which may be transmitted to healthcare professionals or hospitals. Risks to protecting such personal data and privacy are rising. IP protection provides safeguards for patient health data, including medical histories and diagnostic test results, under various IP laws. Digital rights management technologies are an invaluable tool in this respect.

WIPO’s role in facilitating discussions on digital technology and IP

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) takes on a pivotal role in fostering discussions and knowledge sharing among Member States and stakeholders on digital technology and IP. Its mission is to support well-informed policy choices and provide practical tools and guidance to navigate the complex IP landscape in the fast-moving digital world. Through an open process, WIPO currently leads several discussions covering topics of relevance to digital health. These include conversations regarding AI and IP policy implications such as the Conversation on IP and Frontier Technologies, offering a forum to discuss the impact of frontier technologies on all IP rights, bridging gaps in this rapidly evolving domain.

Other global initiatives

International organizations have launched initiatives harnessing the potential of digital health. Recently, WIPO, along with International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and WHO started the Global Initiative on AI for Health with a goal to ensure that AI fulfils its potential to support diagnosis and treatment, along with more efficient and inclusive healthcare services. The "Be Healthy, Be Mobile" initiative, led by ITU and WHO, leverages mobile technology to support healthcare services, especially in low-resource settings. The Global Digital Health Partnership brings together governments, digital health experts, and organizations to advance global digital health standards and best practices, promoting knowledge exchange and interoperability efforts.

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Digital Health during the COVID-19 pandemic – a path to equitable access

Initiatives like the Open COVID Pledge encouraged organizations to make their patents and copyrights freely available during the pandemic, facilitating efficient global implementation of contact tracing apps and other digital health tools. Moreover, the Open COVID Pledge, an implementing partner of the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), launched in 2020, offers a platform for developers to offer their IP, knowledge, and data with quality-assured manufacturers, aiming to ensure faster, equitable, and affordable access to COVID-19 health products, including digital tools, for people in all countries.

These initiatives, among others, demonstrate the commitment to unlocking the transformative potential of digital health, improving healthcare delivery, and ensuring equitable access to quality healthcare services worldwide. That said, the global digital divide persists and countries with high disease burdens that also lack sufficient digital infrastructure should be supported to close the gap.