Ryl Jensen

Embracing the potential of digital health.

Ryl Jensen posing for a photo in her graduation attire. She is holding a bouquet of flowers.In September 2022, Master of Health graduate Ryl Jensen stepped off the plane in New York and began preparing to share her research at the United Nations General Assembly 77 Science Summit. Just a few years earlier, she was a photographer with an IT background.

How had her life changed so dramatically in such a short time? An interminable desire to improve health outcomes, the support of her lecturers and family, and some stalwart determination was key.

Ryl’s interest in the health sector was largely sparked by her own experience of infertility as a result of Asherman’s Syndrome, which prompted her to become an advocate for those with the acquired condition and eventually co-found the International Asherman’s Association.

“I learned a lot about our health system through my own health issues and having children who needed a lot of specialist care,” she says.

“I figured out how to advocate for our needs within that system.”

She also took a petition to Parliament focused on reducing surgical intervention following missed miscarriages, instead leaning to medical intervention as the first port of call for physicians and mothers.

She decided to return to University to study for a Master of Health, admitting she was “terrified” after a 30-year break from study.

But it was saying “yes” and embracing the opportunities available that set her on a fast track to health sector leadership. COVID-19 hit part way through her studies, and she started attending online forums run by New Zealand Health Information Technology (NZHIT) and making some connections with the organisation and the sector.

Ryl jumped at the chance to contribute to a report NZHIT were producing for the Minister of Health that detailed the state of Aotearoa’s digital health landscape and was well-placed to do so.

“The skills and knowledge I had gained through study in research and referencing allowed me to make a solid contribution to the report,” she says.

When the report, Hauora, Mauri Ora - Enabling a Healthier Aotearoa New Zealand, was finally published Ryl was singled out as a significant contributor.

In her final year of study, she was hired as the General Manager for NZHIT, and when the CEO left not long after, she made the leap into heading up the organisation—now rebranded as the Digital Health Association.

Everybody should be interested in digital health, says Ryl.

“Digital health is far too important to be left on the sidelines, it impacts everything, from managing buildings, to managing patients, to managing medical devices, and more,” she says.

“It can be such a great tool for reducing poor health outcomes, improving the efficiency of the health system, and providing continuity of care for patients, helping them take greater control of their health and wellbeing.”

Ryl’s final dissertation explored a governance framework for digital health in Aotearoa. While she does not sugarcoat how difficult submitting the dissertation was, receiving the grade was apt reward.

“As I got close to handing in my dissertation my Apple Watch started telling me my heart rate was a bit high, it was stressful,” she says.

“But when I opened my results, it felt like total validation for the work that I had put in and the path I was on.”

She received the final grade for her dissertation while she was in Ireland, having been invited to speak about her research at the Global Healthcare Forum in Dublin.

A few months later she landed in New York, with her husband and two children, ready to further share her research on digital health governance at the United Nations General Assembly 77 Science Summit—which Ryl describes as a pinch yourself moment.

"Imposter syndrome is a real thing, but here I was, in New York, about to let everyone know why creating an independent digital health agency is considered crucial to the successful implementation of national technology solutions across health systems.”

A global manifesto, The Digital Health Manhattan Manifesto, was produced following the summit, with two of the 12 principles outlined stemming directly from Ryl’s dissertation.

The crux of her vision is autonomous accountable governance for digital health in the form of a crown entity.

“The potential for digital health is there but it isn’t fully embraced yet,” she says.

“We could get to a point where we have a complete view of someone’s health from birth to death, where patients don’t have to repeat their stories over again and can begin to understand and take control of their wellbeing.

“We could catch people before they start going downhill and put them in touch with face-to-face assistance and engage with our rangatahi and youth who might be more comfortable in a digital environment.”

For Ryl, the journey is far from over, with the intention to begin a PhD that builds on the ideas explored in her Master of Health research.

“The World Health Organisation and the United Nations talk about the importance of leadership and governance in digital health, and that’s pretty hard to ignore,” she says.

“We need governments across the world to make digital health a priority, to fund its development properly and earnestly, and to believe it can and will work. Without this, digital health will remain one of those things that is always nearly there but also just out of reach. We cannot and should not let this happen so, quite simply, let’s not.”