Nicola Magrini (left), outgoing secretary of the WHO Essential Medicines List Committee, and Dr Tedros (right) at the launch of the electronic EML.

The World Health Organization launched the first-ever digital version of its latest Model list of Essential Medicines (EML) on Thursday. The move is the latest step in WHO’s effort to explore technology in a new focus on digital health.

“For more than 40 years, the list has become a reliable and credible source of the most important drugs,”  said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO at the launch of the new electronic tool, which will “revolutionize” the way it’s used.

Dr Tedros also paid tribute to Nicola Magrini, outgoing secretary of WHO’s EML Committee, who was tapped in January to replace Luca Li Bassi as the head of the Italian Medicines Agency.

He called Magrini’s departure from WHO “bittersweet,” and said the electronic EML was launched quickly in February partially as “a token of appreciation” for the secretary’s work.

The list, which provides guidance on the most crucial medicines for countries to have in supply, has been revised every two years by a group of WHO experts since 1977, and has previously only been published in print or PDF format.

Countries received a paper or PDF copy of the list, and manually searched through the many pages to find guidance on specific compounds to update their own national lists – which dictated which medicines to procure for the health system.

The new electronic format makes the WHO’s EML list more accessible and easily searchable on smartphone and computer screens. Users can search by medicine name or health issue, and filter results by target population, dates medicines were added to the list, and section of the EML. The customized lists are exportable to Excel or Word.

More than 150 countries currently use the WHO list to work out which medicines best meet their national health contexts and priorities, so they can compile their own national essential medicines lists.

Countries at all income levels rely on the list – including Canada, which is currently using the EML to design its own national list. According to Dr Tedros, the EML is one of WHO’s “most important products.”

“Of course placing medicines on a list does not on it’s own guarantee patient access,” said Dr. Tedros. But, the list still represents an important “first step in the policy process towards ensuring access to these medicines.”