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ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

Speech by ITU Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun I. Touré

M-health – Geneva Dialogue
The potential of m-health for development

27 June 2011, Geneva, Switzerland

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon and welcome – and a warm thank you to my friend Klaus Leisinger, who has created this opportunity for us to meet here today and to work together.

As you may know, Klaus and I are involved in several, but complementary international initiative: the Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health –a joint ITU and WHO activity-, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development –a joint ITU and UNESCO initiative- and the Digital Health Initiative. 

Throughthese multi-stakeholder initiatives we are making our best efforts to promote the potential of ICTs for Health and we are looking at ways in which m-health and e-health projects can be scaled up in the real world. Most importantly we are trying to link the ICT world with the medical world.

I therefore particularly welcome this opportunity to discuss the potential of m-health for development here today. ICTs in general, and mobile technologies in particular, are already transforming the way we live, work, and provide health services. Indeed, I am convinced that this transformation will not only continue but also accelerate in the near future.

I am often asked how will the world look in ten years time. And I reply that it is impossible to answer – because ICTs change everything, so quickly.

Imagine, at the beginning of the Millennium, being able to predict how the world would look today. Back then, around half of the people in the world’s richest countries had a mobile phone. Mobile penetration in Africa was under 2%.

Today there are more than 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions globally. Penetration in Africa is over 40%. And more than half of households in some developing countries – even in rural and remote areas – have a mobile phone.

At the beginning of the Millennium, around 280 million people used the Internet worldwide. By the end of last year that figure had grown to over 2 billion.

And in the past decade we have seen the arrival of iPods, smartphones and tablet computers. Back in the year 2000, a graphics card that sold for a million dollars delivered roughly the same power and graphics capabilities as an iPad does today.

So who knows what we will see in the next decade?

Ladies and gentlemen,

Areas where ICTs, and m-health in particular, are already clearly helping to improve healthcare – especially in the developing world, but also in wealthier countries – include:

Improving information flow to and from patients – for example through monitoring and SMS reminders about anti-retrovirals, vaccines, or neo-natal care etc – and also connecting health workers with one another.

Telemedicine / remote consultation – avoiding the need for travel or to take time off work.

Training for healthcare workers – delivering distance education; up-to-date health information; and upgraded skills.

Information systems and mapping capabilities for disease surveillance, epidemic tracking, and response.

Better access to emergency services, ambulances, paramedics, through 911 numbers etc.

Improvements in the management of medical records; for example through the ability for patients to carry their own records on mobile phones.

Revolutionized data collection. This used to be survey-based, irregular and slow (3-5 years). Now it can almost happen in real-time.

Public awareness and communication – through channels such as radio, TV, Internet, mobile phones, and increasingly social media and crowdsourcing.

Improved disaster preparedness and response.

Supporting the personalization of care through automated multilingual services.

Democratizing the accessibility of health data and information, leading to improved transparency.

And of course many more.

Distinguished colleagues,

So how does all this help us look to the future?

I said it was impossible to predict, but it does seem likely that we shall see the following trends – perhaps not all at once, and perhaps not all in the next ten years, but this is the way things are heading, I believe:

An increasing move from narrow-band to ever more data-centric and real-time applications, especially on mobile devices. Indeed, in the very near future, more people will be accessing the Internet from mobile wireless devices than they will from fixed-line computers.

There are already more than a billion mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide, and companies like Ericsson and Nokia expect that number to rise to over five billion in the next decade. This will allow some services – notably consultation and diagnosis – which were previously available only in clinics or hospitals, to become available in the home, on-demand, through affordable low-tech solutions.

This will all be facilitated by the move to next-generation all-IP networks and devices.

There were 663 million Skype users at the beginning of 2011. Already, most mobile devices have a camera included. So with all-IP networks, this allows for free or ultra-low cost, real-time video-conferencing – from the home, or even from the ambulance.

In hospitals and clinics we’ll see a huge increase in the use of visualization technology.

Increasingly, consultants and surgeons will be able to see – and even experiment virtually on – clear working 3D models of a patient’s heart, before operating in reality; or see exactly where a brain is malfunctioning, without the need to open up the skull.

On a much simpler level, we are already seeing smartphone apps that can make a real difference on the ground, even when there isn’t an Internet connection available.

Across every sector we will also see a massive proliferation in machine-to-machine communications, and we will see the Internet of Things become a reality. In terms of the health sector, what this means is that we will see personal and home-based sensor devices playing an increasingly prominent role – so that remote patient monitoring and telemedicine become an everyday reality.

Health providers will also benefit from the data provided by the final users. You may be wondering: who will have computing power to process all the data coming from millions of connected users and devices? This is where cloud computing, a trend that allows computing power can be rented from data centres, provides a great opportunity, especially for developing countries. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

We will also, of course, be amazed in ten years time by all the things which happened– and which will quietly revolutionize health, and m-health delivery. Nanotechnologies for instance open new perspectives which we cannot predict at all.

We are witnessing the fastest changes in human history – and as an optimist I believe that we have within our grasp the greatest opportunities for social and economic development ever known.

2015 is the deadline for the Millenium Development Goals.  I fully believe that ICTs can enable countries to meet this deadline.

Let’s seize this opportunity!

Thank you.