Inaugural Address by the Regional Director for WHO South-East Asia at the Fourth Global Digital Health Partnership Summit

25-26 February 2019, New Delhi, India

His Excellency Mr Jagat Prakash Nadda, Minister of Health, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, India; Hon’ble Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Law & Justice and Electronics and Information Technology, India; Hon’ble Mr Upendra Yadav, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health, Nepal; Ms Harinder Sidhu, Australian High Commissioner to India, Australia; Ms Preeti Sudan, Secretary of Health and Family Welfare, India; Mr Tim Kelsey, Chief Executive, Australian Digital Health Agency, Australia; Ms Sanjeev Kumar, Additional Secretary of Health, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, India; distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,

Technology has been the single greatest accelerator in advancing human health.

Vaccines have prevented innumerable deaths in countries both rich and poor.

Antibiotics have allowed us to treat once fatal infections and diminish the risk of advanced surgical procedures

And the discovery of new therapies for emerging diseases has helped effectively respond to global pandemics.

One need only consider how far the treatment of HIV/AIDS or viral hepatitis has come.

Digital technology is the latest frontier.

Safe and secure digital technologies can significantly improve the quality, accessibility and sustainability of health services.

Though eHealth includes a range of cutting-edge pursuits, from machine learning to artificial intelligence and the emerging field of genomics, the health needs of all people everywhere must be front and center of our focus.

It is heartening to note that this Partnership has always been about solving real problems that real people face and has viewed technology in its historical context: as a tool to advance human health and the freedom and development it brings.

This is especially important to the WHO South-East Asia Region.

Since 2014 countries across the Region have worked to implement the Regional Strategy for Strengthening eHealth and its four core objectives.

First, to promote and support the formulation, execution and evaluation of effective public policies and strategies through the shared responsibility of health and allied sectors.

Second, to improve public health through the use of tools and methodologies based on the innovative use of information and communication technology, or ICT.

Third, to promote and facilitate horizontal cooperation among countries and all key stakeholders to develop the Region’s eHealth agenda.

And fourth, to promote knowledge management, education in ICT and better access to information as a key element for health promotion and health care.

Member States across the Region are now implementing their own digital health – or eHealth – strategies and plans, designed to improve patient care and health service management.

I commend India’s leadership in building Region-wide momentum.

As you may be aware, India was the prime advocate of a resolution on digital health that was endorsed at the Seventy-first World Health Assembly just last year.

That resolution specifically called for the cost effective and secure use of information and communication technologies in support of health and health-related fields, including health care services, health surveillance, health literature and health education.

We really are at a crucial juncture in the growth, development and uptake of digital health technologies.

We should all welcome the critical mass that has emerged and which we are part of today.

We should also embrace the transformative potential this critical mass holds, especially in low-resource settings.

This is particularly important given our Region’s own Flagship Priorities, the Sustainable Development Goals and WHO’s 13th General Programme of Work.

Achieving universal health coverage, as our Region has sought to do since 2014, for example, is dependent on taking full advantage of the opportunities eHealth holds out.

Ensuring health and well-being for all, at all ages, as Sustainable Development Goal 3 emphasizes, requires innovative thinking and the leveraging of global research and development.

And promoting health, keeping the world safe and serving the vulnerable, as the 13th General Programme of Work impels, demands we tap eHealth to maximum effect and drive path-breaking change at the country level.

As resolute as we are, however, challenges – as always – remain.

Insufficient cyber security, interoperability, evidence and evaluation, clinical and consumer engagement, and complex policy environments each have the potential to stymie our progress.

But as this conclave and its ambition demonstrates, they needn’t do so.

Together we can find ways to surmount these challenges and realize the promise eHealth holds out.

I urge you to take full advantage of that opportunity.

In doing so, I also urge you to ensure we stay true to our focus and the many millions – indeed billions – of people for whom digital technology can enhance health, dignity and prosperity.

WHO is, as always, committed to this outcome.

I wish you an engaging and productive meeting.

Thank you.