Committed to connecting the world

ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

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

M-Health Summit

Lunchon Keynote Speech

6 December 2011, Washington DC, USA

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

In a world of seven billion people, it is absolutely clear that information and communication technologies – ICTs – will play a key role in social and economic development.

And with a growing, ageing, population in the 21st century, it is equally clear that one of the areas where ICTs can help make the greatest difference is in the provision and delivery of healthcare.

I firmly believe that m-health applications in particular will be key in providing affordable, sustainable, quality primary health services – especially to patients in rural areas.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As Secretary-General of the ITU – the United Nations Specialized Agency for ICTs – let me start with a very brief digression, to answer a question I am sometimes asked when I am here in the United States.

The question is, why should America’s ICT industry be interested in ITU?

And the answer is quite simple. Because at ITU, governments work together to define the shape of their ICT markets, including:

Allocating the wireless spectrum needed for mobile networks and coordinating satellite management;

Setting global standards for equipment and technologies; and

Developing policies and regulations to encourage new investment in networks and services.

In the second decade of the 21st century, these are all bottom line issues for anyone in the ICT sector.

ITU provides a neutral platform for industry to collaborate with governments and regulators to help shape the future of the sector. We have 193 Member States and some 700 Sector Members, including major players from industry – with many mobile companies among them – as well as international and regional organizations, and academia.

So if you’re a company with foreign investments, or you want to invest in new fast-growing markets, you need to be part of ITU.

Distinguished colleagues,

As well as being asked about the importance and relevance of ITU, people also ask me how I think the world will look a decade from now.

And that is a much, much harder question to answer – because technology is evolving so fast.

Imagine, at the beginning of the Millennium, being able to predict how the world would look today.

Back then, around half the people in the world’s richest countries had a mobile phone. Mobile penetration in Africa was under 2%.

Today there are almost six billion mobile phone subscriptions globally. Mobile penetration in Africa is close to 50%.

At the beginning of the Millennium, around 280 million people used the Internet worldwide. In a decade that figure has grown eight-fold to reach 2.3 billion people, or around a third of the world’s population.

In the past decade we have seen the arrival of iPods, smartphones and tablet computers. Almost any smartphone today has better power and graphics capabilities than a graphics card costing a million dollars in the year 2000.

So we can’t even begin to make serious predictions about the shape of the world a decade from now.

That said, we can already see many areas where ICTs – and in particular m-health – are already clearly making a difference, and I expect to see extraordinary progress, revolutionary progress, in the years ahead.

Among many examples where a difference is already being made, we can include:
  • Access to health advice: people can access information on the internet, either directly or through health centres. Mobile phone applications can convey information in local languages or in pictures to reach illiterate patients.
  • Training for healthcare workers, especially in remote areas: ICTs can deliver distance education, up-to-date information and help upgrade skills.
  • Patient monitoring: patients with heart monitors can send regular data to their doctors and elderly people can be supported while they continue to live at home.
  • Patient information: patients can be sent reminders via mobile phone messages to take their medicines, or bring their child to the local clinic for vaccination.
  • Telemedicine/remote consultation: patients far from hospitals or clinics can receive remote diagnosis or specialist advice through video conferencing, avoiding delays and the need for travel or to take time off work.
  • Disease surveillance: information systems linked to mapping capabilities can improve disease surveillance, epidemic tracking and responses.
  • Data collection: health workers can use ‘smart’ hand-held devices and mobile phones to send data through to processing centres or add to health records, improving speed and reliability of data collection and processing.
  • Access to emergency services such as ambulances and paramedics can be facilitated through better communications systems.
  • Management of patient records: ICTs enable patients to carry their own records on mobile phones or allow health workers to access online patient records.
  • Transparency and accountability: health data and information can be made more accessible to the public as well as policymakers, researchers, healthcare providers and professionals. On this note I should also mention the Commission on Information and Accountability for Women and Children’s Health, which was set up by ITU and WHO to propose a framework for global reporting, oversight and accountability – essential activities in ensuring that targets are met and goals are achieved. Social networking offers further opportunities for strengthening accountability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I know I said it was impossible to predict the future, but I do think it is possible to identify some trends on the basis of what we already know.

I think for example that it is clear that we shall continue to see 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 some 1.2 billion active 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.

As of September, there were 663 million Skype users – giving Skype a bigger population than every country in the world except China or India. 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.

I think we all know young people with mobile devices who use technologies like Skype and FaceTime to make free video calls to their friends and family.

In hospitals and clinics we’ll see a huge increase in the use of visualization technology – such as advanced CAT scans, for example.

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.

You may have seen news stories earlier this year about an app which can be used to diagnose malaria on the spot. The app processes a picture taken by the phone of a blood sample; detects malaria parasites; quantifies how much malaria is in the sample; and even points out the parasites in the photo. Once the data stored in the phone is uploaded, it can be used to spot and monitor disease trends.

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. Companies like Cisco and Ericsson expect there to be 50 billion interconnected devices by 2020, and that doesn’t seem like an impossible prediction to me.

In terms of the health sector, this means 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.

It makes so much more sense to move some care to the home, instead of moving patients to clinics or hospitals – especially for elderly people and patients with chronic diseases.

For all parties concerned, including healthcare specialists and patients – and not to forget health insurers – it also makes more sense for routine data, such as blood pressure, or blood sugar levels, to be collected, sent and analyzed automatically, than it does to use up valuable specialist or patient time.

And when medical needs or emergencies dictate, then automatic alerts – including the patient’s location – can be sent straight through to a doctor or clinic.

ICTs will also continue to play a beneficial role in delivering equitable communications for all – including the one billion people worldwide who live with a disability.

At ITU we are doing a lot of work to facilitate access to ICTs for people with disabilities, notably in the area of standardization and providing policy and regulatory advice to Member States.

We are also working hard on coordinating the development of a set of open global standards for e-health and m-health applications – because interoperability will be absolutely crucial in a hyper-connected world.

ITU just recently approved a new protocol to relay biometric information, connecting medical practitioners with the real-time medical data of patients in remote locations.

We are now working in collaboration with other organizations on further standards and recommendations to help ensure the continuing proliferation of m-health and telemedicine applications.

Distinguished colleagues,

In closing, I would like to briefly draw your attention to the work of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development, which was established last year, recognizing that broadband will be absolutely essential in helping us accelerate progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

We are honoured to have Julius Genachowski as one of our Broadband Commissioners, and I know that he is as committed as I am to ensuring that the benefits of broadband services are brought within reach of all the world’s people – wherever they live and whatever their means.

At our most recent Broadband Commission meeting, in Geneva at the end of October, we endorsed ambitious but achievable targets for broadband policy, affordability and uptake, and we will be reporting regularly on progress made towards meeting those targets.

Broadband access will be vital in underpinning affordable and sustainable e-health and m-health healthcare solutions in the 21st century – not just in developing countries, but in the developed world too.

As an optimist, I expect us to witness the arrival of many new and positive developments in technology which we simply won’t have seen coming.

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

Let’s seize those opportunities!

Thank you.