Liv Raphael, leader of the IAU SDG3 Cluster, which is coordinated by the UOC, through its eHealth Center
When the International Association of Universities (IAU) created a global network of universities (Cluster on HESD) in 2018 to foster progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at universities, and appointed the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) to create and guide the SDG3 cluster, pandemics were only a subject for history books and some specialized academic circles. Five years later and following the appearance of COVID-19, the world has changed and everyone has become aware of the importance of health in our lives.
During this time, the UOC, through its eHealth Center, as the institution coordinating the Cluster on SDG 3 (ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages), and the other members of the cluster have contributed to bridging the gap between science, knowledge and policy, fostering an integrated and equitable approach to health, and increasing the consideration of local voices and needs by encouraging collaboration and harnessing the power of digital tools.
To coincide with The Mental Health Crisis: building resilience in a changing world webinar which will take place on 16 November, we spoke to Liv Raphael, the leader of the IAU SDG3 Cluster, about the lessons learned from the past few years, what the future holds, and above all, health and digital health.
The SDG 3 Cluster is made up of seven higher education institutions: Australia's Western Sydney University, Uganda's Makerere University, Colombia's Universidad de Caldas, Indonesia's Universitas Gadjah Mada, Sweden's Karolinska Institutet, Ireland's University College Dublin, and the UOC.
The COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a health emergency according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but most countries and health systems are still dealing with its consequences. What impact has the pandemic had on health?
We're halfway to the 2030 Agenda goals, and together with the other crises we're currently facing, the pandemic has slowed progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, which seeks to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for society at all ages. It has also unequivocally highlighted the importance of the social determinants of health.
And what about mental health?
According to the WHO, the global prevalence of mental health problems involving anxiety and depression increased by about 25% during the first year of the pandemic. And in today's environment of multiple economic, social, political and environmental transitions and crises, it'll be important to give people the support they need to develop the skills to cope with this uncertain, volatile and rapidly changing environment.
How can digital health tools contribute to meeting these challenges?
Digital health tools were essential during the pandemic, when access to mental health services was disrupted by overburdened health systems and restrictions on mobility. The existing tools were rolled out quickly, and new ones appeared. Digital health solutions can help to manage information, increase access, complement the existing support, and tailor interventions to suit individuals' specific characteristics and needs.
And how can higher education and research contribute to improving the delivery of digital health services in mental health?
Universities have various roles to play as places where health professionals work and study, and do research and training. For example, as places to work and study, they can ensure that their own spaces promote health and wellness. As educational institutions, universities can incorporate the development of skills such as leadership and resilience, and can also facilitate lifelong learning to ensure that professionals stay up to date with developments. So, for example, they can support healthcare professionals in developing knowledge to implement digital health methodologies and tools effectively, and stay up to date with the rise of artificial intelligence and new technological developments.
As places that carry out research, they can contribute evidence and studies to ensure that digital health tools and methodologies are implemented in a transparent, equitable and accessible manner. They can also help overcome challenges related to finding the right care models, and balancing remote and face-to-face care.
In short, universities are a privileged place in which to work on multiple levels. They're active at the global, regional, national and local levels through research, and they also interact directly with local communities through their community outreach programmes. As key members of the health community, they can help bring together and foster exchanges between researchers, teaching staff, NGOs, governments, the private sector and communities.
What other lessons can be learned from the experience of COVID-19?
The experience of the pandemic may have accelerated some trends, and it helped highlight a great deal of the scientific literature and policy proposals. For example, it's helped us to see and improve our understanding of the interrelationships between health, economic, political and social systems, as well as the importance of universal health coverage and of considering the determinants of health.
The COVID-19 experience has also speeded up the digital transformation, and helped to highlight some of the challenges that still need to be overcome. It's also demonstrated the importance of investing in mental health and developing skills based on resilience to cope with change. Finally, it's proven the extent to which networks and collaboration across sectors are critical to a rapid response and recovery.
COVID-19 has also taught us a lot about the connection between our health and the health of the planet.
To put it in simple terms, the health of the planet determines the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and the living environment we share. So there can be no human health without planetary health. Our healthcare systems also have an environmental impact, and use both renewable and non-renewable planetary resources.
What are the main objectives of the webinar on The Mental Health Crisis: building resilience in a changing world, which will take place on 16 November?
The webinar will discuss some emerging trends in mental health, and place them in specific national contexts. We'll also be studying examples of emerging methodologies and tools in digital health and the research developed to support prevention and management of mental health cases. Finally, the specific role of higher education and research in providing and supporting the delivery of mental health services through digital health tools will be discussed.
This webinar is being organized by the IAU's SDG3 Cluster, a cluster led by the UOC's eHealth Center. What are its primary objectives?
The SDG3 Cluster is part of the IAU Global Cluster on Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development, which fosters collaboration between universities to progress towards the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. The SDG3 Cluster aims to boost the role of higher education and to promote a holistic approach to health that uses technology to support equality and well-being. It does so by providing a space for collaboration, sharing best practices and research, and fostering exchanges between institutions and connecting with other disciplines, sectors, networks and groups in the IAU.
What lessons have been learned in the first three years of the SDG3 Cluster's work?
I believe we've learned a lot about how to navigate in a complex space, moving forward with a common purpose while embracing diversity and local contexts, how to focus on short-term joint actions while maintaining a long-term joint vision, how to move forward in a structured way while remaining flexible in order to adapt to a changing environment, and how to ensure continuous creative processes among the members of the cluster.
The group has just released a white paper. Among its key messages, it says that it is time to redefine the concept of health. Could you explain how?
We must think about health in an inclusive way, promoting equality in health and wellness. We must therefore consider both physical and mental health in the long term, ensure that the patient's specific needs are at the centre of diagnosis and care, and take all determinants of health into account in order to achieve the maximum potential.
What is the way forward for the cluster? What are the next steps?
We'll continue to share learning and experiences, and to promote exchanges on how universities are incorporating SDG3 into their institutions, research and teaching. Over the next year, we'll be focusing on analysing the connection between mental health and digital health from a gender perspective, which is a cross-cutting area of interest for all the members of the cluster.
The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.
Over 500 researchers and more than 50 research groups work in the UOC's seven faculties, its eLearning Research programme and its two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).
The university also develops online learning innovations at its eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.
Open knowledge and the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu.