Committed to connecting the world

ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG

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

GETHealth Global Education & Technology Health Summit

Opening Keynote

06 February 2013, New York, USA

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and a great honour to be here with you in New York this morning for the Global Education and Technology Health Summit – GETHealth. I would like to thank the organizers – The Center for Clinical Global Health Education at Johns Hopkins University and the Global Partnerships Forum – for the wonderful programme they have put together.

As the Secretary-General of the ITU, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies, my mission is to connect the world, and to bring the benefits of ICTs to all the world’s people – wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.

I firmly believe that if we can succeed in achieving our mission, then we will see unprecedented social and economic improvement for all.

Because in the 21st century, technology – and particularly information and communication technology – has become a great driving force to further human progress.

Indeed, ICTs have become key enablers in every facet of human activity – from healthcare and education to energy, transportation, government, entertainment, innovation and enterprise.

In the process, ICTs are bringing the sum of human knowledge within reach of all the world’s people – wherever they live, and whatever their circumstances – for the first time in human history.

As a result – increasingly, and in all countries – ICTs are no longer seen as a luxury, but as a basic necessity; as basic infrastructure.

In a world of seven billion people, with a growing and ageing population, it is clear that one of the areas where ICTs can help make the greatest positive difference is in the provision and delivery of healthcare.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have made the most extraordinary progress in the first twelve years of the new Millennium.

In the year 2000, around half the people in the world’s richest countries had a mobile phone and mobile penetration in Africa was under 2%.

Today there are more than six billion mobile phone subscriptions globally, and mobile penetration in Africa is well over 50%.

At the beginning of the Millennium, around 280 million people used the Internet worldwide. In not much more than a decade that figure has grown almost ten-fold to reach just over a third of the world’s population.

And in just the past few years we have seen the arrival of smartphones and tablet computers – and today’s smartphones have better power and graphics capabilities than a graphics card costing a million dollars in the year 2000.

We still have far to go, however.

Two thirds of the world’s people – some 4.5 billion people – are still offline. That means that:


  • Two thirds of the world’s people are still locked out of the world’s biggest and most valuable library.
  • Two thirds of the world’s people are still refused access to the world’s biggest market place.
  • And two thirds of the world’s people are denied the opportunities which are now available to the other third.

There are those who would argue that we do not need high-end technology at all to solve the world’s most pressing issues – such as hunger and poverty – and that these can be addressed by having enough people willing to help, and through the use of simple technology, such as 2G mobile phones.

But this misses two important points:

  • Firstly, the Internet is not just about hi-tech. Instead, it is the biggest, broadest and best information resource in history.
  • And secondly, without broadband infrastructure, and without the power of large servers and big data storage capabilities humming away in the background, we can achieve very little. SMS messages to remote and rural patients become so much more effective if there is a broadband network and powerful computers behind them.

This is why ITU and UNESCO set up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in 2010 – to advocate for increased broadband access and rollout globally; not just for its own sake, but to accelerate progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

The Commission is co-chaired by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Carlos Slim, President of the Carlos Slim Foundation; Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO and myself have the honour to serve as co-Vice-Chairs.

We now have close to 60 Broadband Commissioners – all leaders in their field – representing governments, industry, academia and international agencies, and they are doing great work in advocating the importance of policy leadership.

And it is great to see several of our Commissioners here at this Summit, including Amir Dossal, Jeff Sachs, Reza Jafari and Suvi Linden.

Distinguished colleagues,

As we will see over the next two days, the combination of education and technology will allow us to make huge advances in the provision of healthcare services worldwide – especially in the developing world, where the gap between healthcare availability and healthcare provision still remains the widest.

We are already seeing the benefits that can be achieved with ICTs, in areas such as:
  • Access to health advice: people can access information on the internet, either directly or through health centres. This can be absolutely crucial as a mechanism to allow women to research reproductive health issues, for example, which it may be impossible to discuss openly within the community. Mobile phone applications can also be used to 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 or blood 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. A pilot project in Senegal reported that data that took two weeks to collect on paper was now being collected in just one hour.
  • Access to emergency services such as ambulances and paramedics can be facilitated through better communications systems.
  • Management of patient records: ICTs can enable patients to carry their own records on mobile phones or allow health workers to access online patient records, speeding information exchange and improving the quality of treatment.
  • Transparency and accountability: health data and information can be made more accessible to the public as well as policy makers, researchers, healthcare providers and professionals. Social networking offers further opportunities for strengthening accountability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me give you one or two tangible examples to bring this to life.

And let me start with maternal health, which quite shockingly is still the Millennium Development Goal where we have seen the least progress.

Today, one woman dies every minute from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, and 99% of these deaths are in the developing world.

This is not just totally unacceptable; it is entirely unnecessary.

Because in the modern world, ICTs can be used to deliver the essential information needed to improve maternal and neonatal health.

Take something as simple as hand-washing.

A study on the impact of maternal and birth attendant hand-washing on neonatal mortality in southern Nepal found that the incidence of mortality among neonates fell by over 40% when both the mother and the attendant washed their hands.

The power lies in the information – and the means to transport that information and deliver it to the right place at the right time.

And ICTs can do more than any other single tool to make that happen – with the potential to save millions of lives a year.

As part of ITU’s partnership with WHO on the Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health – which I am proud to co-Vice-Chair with Margaret Chan, the Director-General of WHO – we have been developing a new report on the use of ICTs for improving information and accountability, and let me strongly encourage you to make use of this report when it is published.

As smartphones become ever-more widespread in the developing world, we can also expect to see a corresponding increase in the number of healthcare apps being developed – and we are already seeing some remarkable progress in this area.

These apps can make a real difference on the ground – even when there is no Internet connection available.

Last year I read about a simple but revolutionary app that 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 that is stored in the phone is uploaded online, it can then be used to spot and monitor disease trends, helping to play a vital role in prevention as well as in treatment.

Every week brings us fresh news of ingenious new apps which have very often been developed locally, to address local issues.

And the reason for this is that there is still one resource which is completely unlimited, on this resource-scarce planet of ours, and that is human brainpower.

We should never underestimate this.

Distinguished colleagues,

In this regard, we must also continue in our efforts to ensure not just that the technology is there – the infrastructure, the end-user equipment, and the smart apps – but that the expertise is also there.

And this is where education and training play such an important role.

We all know that one of the keys to improving healthcare – especially in remote and rural areas – is community healthcare workers. But to be effective they need to know how to use the technology and how to get the most from it.

And here, technology itself is the killer application – because technology enables the delivery of education – through distance learning etc – which then improves the delivery of healthcare, which then benefits the whole of society, in a virtuous circle.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In closing, let me just say that these battles cannot be fought, let alone won, alone.

We must all work together – and that means working in partnership; between the public and private sectors; between solid, established enterprises and bright, young start-ups; between developing countries and developed countries; between north and south; and between east and west.

A great example of a new and innovative partnership is the initiative ITU launched with the World Health Organization late last year, called ‘Be Healthy Be Mobile’.

This is a four-year, eight-country initiative to use mobile technology, and in particular text messaging and apps, to help combat non-communicable diseases, NCDs.

This is absolutely vital, because NCDs contribute to an estimated 36 million of the 57 million global deaths each year, including 14 million people dying between the ages of 30 and 70.

These are the diseases that break the bank. In some countries, for example, care for diabetes alone consumes as much as 15% of the national health care budget.

The ‘Be Healthy Be Mobile’ initiative will scale up already successful and cost effective technologies for NCDs, which have been proven at a pilot level and make them available to the world.

At the global level, partners will share knowledge and technical expertise to help develop the standard operating procedure for each m-Health intervention, as well as build support for the initiative. At the national level, governments work closely with the initiative to accelerate the rollout of operational projects.

The initiative will work with partners at all levels, particularly private sector partners, and I invite you to join us!

So let me close by challenging all of you to come up with innovative solutions through new forms of partnerships and alliances – and I look forward very much to seeing the outcomes of this unique two-day event, which I plan to share with the Broadband Commission.

As many of you will know, I am an optimist, and I am happy to say that my optimism has been generously rewarded.

We have achieved much, together.

And together, we will achieve much, much more.

Thank you.