Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are opening new opportunities to help people access better health.
ICTs help people communicate every day. ITU – the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICT) – is committed to promoting ICT as a major driving force for sustainable development, bringing the unprecedented benefits of next-generation networks and services to remote and rural regions, least developed countries and persons with special needs in particular.
ICTs are increasingly recognized as the foundation upon which economic and social development can prosper. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that “the spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and develop knowledge societies”. Today, ICTs can improve access to every social and economic sector, such as education, health, commerce, agriculture, transportation and government, just to mention a few. Innovative broadband services can be life-changing for individuals, communities and societies at large.
In the health sector, ITU, in close collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), achieved a historic milestone on 24 May this year by bringing together ministers of telecommunication/ICT and ministers of health for the first time at an inter-ministerial round table, to discuss opportunities for the full adoption of Universal Health Coverage. The round table, which was held at the Palais des Nations, was opened by ITU Secretary- General Houlin Zhao and WHO Director- General Dr. Margaret Chan. During the meeting, ministers debated the use of ICTs to improve universal health coverage, potential strategic opportunities for the adoption of digital technology in the health sector and the importance of continuous cross-sectoral collaboration, among others.
“ICTs empower billions of individuals around the world, and will be critical to the timely attainment of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on health,” said Mr. Zhao. “We have the opportunity to transform how health care is delivered especially in the world’s poorest and remotest regions, and at the same time empower patients and citizens everywhere to intervene in their own health care.”
The round table was preceded by a highlevel policy dialogue on digital health under the theme “Digital Health for Healthy Lives and Well-being for All”. The dialogue was attended by ministers of telecommunication/ ICT, WHO representatives and a variety of stakeholders from industry, academia and civil society. Participants examined the key role ICTs can play to support the attainment of SDG 3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” New trends that may positively impact universal health coverage – such as the Internet of Things and the practical applications of big data – were also discussed.
“The ubiquity of mobile phones even in the poorest countries makes them a powerful tool for achieving universal health coverage, which will underpin the attainment of the other health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” said Dr. Chan. “Working with partners like ITU and others to harness one another’s strengths greatly boosts our prospects of reaching the SDGs.”
ITU and WHO already have experience in successfully integrating ICTs in health. The “Be He@lthy, Be Mobile” Initiative, led jointly by ITU and WHO, aims to assist governments in the use of mobile technology to reinforce and improve their existing national health activities in order to prevent, manage and treat non-communicable diseases and their risk factors. The Initiative promotes a highly multi-sectoral approach to ensure that programmes are sustainable in the long term.
“The rapid growth of global interconnectivity through ICTs is opening new perspectives to help patients access better health and to provide new solutions and avenues for disease prevention, care and control,” said Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau. “In a world where health systems are facing pressure to improve quality, accessibility and affordability, incorporating ICTs in health delivery mechanisms definitely brings great benefits.”
In 2014, at the peak of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the ITU Development Bureau developed and launched the “Ebola-Info-Sharing” mobile application to enhance the capacity of medical practitioners responding to the outbreak. The app helped in the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of the disease, but also in strengthening health care systems, health care practitioner support, health care surveillance and administration, and through improvements in emergency response.
ITU also developed a free mobile application to be used in the campaign against chikungunya and dengue diseases in the Caribbean region. The application will provide the public with vital information on the diseases, including how they are spread, signs and symptoms, prevention and control, and where to get treatment. It will also offer access to the latest news on the diseases from official sources as well as an interactive map of the affected areas.
Digital health not only enhances prevention, diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of diseases, but it also contributes to the strengthening of health care systems. By using mobile phones to capture health data, medical practitioners can analyse trends, and make projections about disease outbreaks, health service usage, and patient knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding their health – all within critical time frames to eradicate disease and reduce mortality rates.
Over the last few years, we have seen a proliferation of innovative e-health applications. However, not many have been adopted as part of global standards of health care delivery. There are still a number of critical areas where stakeholders in the health and ICT sectors need to find common ground in order to move digital health beyond the piloting phase. On the policy front there is a need to shift from vertical policies and regulations to collaborative policy and regulation between the two sectors.
Although 95 per cent of the globe is now covered by a mobile-cellular signal, there are still an estimated 350 million people worldwide who live in places which are still out of reach of a mobile network. Investment in infrastructure, especially broadband and mobile communication, is needed to connect health facilities to ensure the same level of access to information by all health professionals, patients and citizens regardless of where they are.
Interoperability is extremely important in a hyper-connected world. ITU continues to develop international technical standards for digital health applications with a focus on the individual, particularly for extending treatment and care beyond traditional clinical settings into personal and home settings. “Global cooperation in standardization does a great service to the public interest by establishing a common basis for innovation and technological advance,” said Chaesub Lee, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau. “ITU’s standardization work in the field of e-health engages a multitude of partners to ensure that e-health innovators are supported by the reliability and interoperability of standards-based technologies.”
An additional resource to consumers is the ITU “ICT product conformity database” that provides industry with a means to publicize the conformance of ICT products and services with ITU’s international standards. It has been encouraging to see the e-health industry taking the lead in submitting its products for inclusion in this database with the intention of assisting buyers in their efforts to select products conforming to the ITU standard “Interoperability design guidelines for personal health systems (Recommendation ITU-T H.810)”. This data will be of great value in improving interoperability, which is absolutely critical in the e-health sphere.
Human capacity and capabilities need to be strengthened to increase the capacity of local health workers and beneficiaries to adopt new technologies and adapt them to satisfy local needs.
ITU believes that progress is very encouraging in many areas but more needs to be done in order to tap into the full potential of ICTs in achieving national health objectives. A cross-sector dialogue and collaboration among all ICT and health stakeholders needs to continue and is considered a critical factor for the success of any digital health initiative at global, regional or national levels. Universal health coverage is about providing quality health services to all those in need, especially the remote areas and the vulnerable strata of society. ICTs can greatly contribute to strengthening health systems, and reducing costs, while at the same time maximizing coverage.
ICTs have enormous potential to improve development outcomes in both the developing and the developed world. All three pillars of sustainable development – economic development, social inclusion and environmental protection – need ICTs as key catalysts, and ICTs will be absolutely crucial for achieving the SDGs.
On 11 March 2016, ITU and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) organized a Policy Forum that brought together ministers of telecommunication/ ICT and ministers of education to examine the role that policies and cross-sectoral collaboration can play in fostering innovation and the use of mobile technology to improve the quality, equity and accessibility of education. The meeting marked the start of an important collaborative effort between the education and ICT sectors to design policies that will build comprehensive and sustainable strategies for the digital learning revolution.