Denis Gilhooly obituary: A digital healthcare pioneer

Data-driven innovator believed in bringing better healthcare to all parts of the world

Denis Gilhooly: ‘His spark was contagious and his enthusiasm for work infectious’

Denis Gilhooly: ‘His spark was contagious and his enthusiasm for work infectious’


Born: June 15th, 1960
Died: December 18th, 2020

Denis Gilhooly, a pioneering figure in the application of information and communications technology (ICT) to global health systems has died in Beijing while building a digital health network with the World Health Organisation and other partners.

Gilhooly believed passionately that data-driven innovations could bring better healthcare to all parts of the world. He also knew instinctively that trusted data was vital in preparing for, detecting and surveilling pandemics.

Gilhooly grew up in Surrey, the only son of Irish immigrant parents, but he always described Ireland as his home and spent many childhood summers in Leitrim and Sligo. He was the lead author of former taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s two advisory committee reports on telecommunications and information and communications technology for the Irish government. He was the founding member and lead author for the United Nations’ ICT taskforce under secretary general Kofi Annan. He was also one of the architects of the UN Broadband Commission, whose aim is to bring broadband to the 3.1 billion people who still do not have access to the internet.

In 2015 he founded the Global Health 2030 Innovation Taskforce and became the co-chair of the Global Digital Health Initiative 2030, the successor of the UN Digital Health Initiative (2008-2015). His work spanned both the private and public sectors; one of his noteworthy projects in the private sector was Teledesic LLC, the broadband internet-in-the-sky project of Bill Gates and Craig McCaw in the 1990s. He also served as media and technology director of the Wall Street Journal.

Networking skills

Gilhooly was an excellent networker and lived in London, Paris, Seattle and New York at various points in his life. International in his outlook and approach, he had contacts throughout the world in the applications of digital technology to health and wellbeing. He organised and spoke at many seminal conferences and workshops that addressed the planet’s digital future.

Friend and colleague Mark Malloch-Brown, who worked with Gilhooly on the G7 scheme to embed digital health technology in the developing world, said Gilhooly was always at the centre of things – whether at work or in a social setting. “His spark was contagious and his enthusiasm for work infectious.”

Gilhooly grew up in Epsom, the middle child of three of Jim and Anne Gilhooly from Dromahair, Co Leitrim. Both his parents worked in the mental health sector. Anne was a night nurse, and Jim a nursing assistant. Denis attended St Andrew’s comprehensive school in Leatherhead, Surrey, and was the first member of his family to go to university. He obtained a BA honours degree in English literature from Cambridge Polytechnic (now Anglia Ruskin University) and a master’s in literature, specialising in the work of Shakespeare, from Birmingham University. He retained a love of Shakespeare throughout his life, and had a Shakespearean quote for every occasion.

At 24 he founded the publication Communications Week International before moving into and specialising in digital health. He quickly realised that digital technologies were critical to the detection and surveillance of pandemics through their inherent ability to keep pace with the spread of infectious diseases.

Gilhooly travelled extensively all his life, and was based in China for the last year of his life. Joann O’Brien, vice-president of TM Forum’s 5G digital ecosystems, says that the Health Data Platform, which is in the final phase of development, will be named after him.

He is survived by his sisters, Brenda and Marian; and three nieces.