Opening Address by the Regional Director at the International Digital Health Symposium

27 February 2019, New Delhi, India

Hon’ble Mr Upendra Yadav, Deputy Prime Minister, Nepal; Hon’ble Mr Zahid Maleque, Minister of Health & Family Welfare, Bangladesh; Hon’ble Dr Ulana Suprun, Minister of Health, Ukraine; Hon’ble Ms Anupriya Patel, Minister of State, Health & Family Welfare, India; Hon’ble Mr Faizal Cassim, State Minister Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, Sri Lanka; Dr VK Paul, Member, NITI Aayog, India; Ms Preeti Sudan, Secretary of Health & Family Welfare, India; distinguished experts, keynote speakers, external partners, media, ladies and gentlemen,

A very good morning to you.

After two days of robust and engaging discussion at the Fourth Summit of the Global Digital Health Partnership, we would all agree that digital technology has immense potential to solve some of our most pressing health problems.

It has the potential to connect health professionals to patients in remote or hard-to-reach areas.

It has the means to better collect, analyze and disseminate data at all levels, so changes in population health can be identified and acted on.

And it can harness the digital revolution to improve health facilities and the health of communities that rely on them.

Most of all, digital health is about finding ways to fast track what our Region has been working towards since 2014: universal health coverage, or UHC.

In other words, digital health is a means to an end, and a very important one at that.

As such, I welcome this symposium and the rich discussion it will build on.

For many years, both in our Region and beyond, WHO has supported Member States to fully leverage digital health technology.

As far back as the turn of the millennium, for example, WHO held its first global eHealth Ethics Summit in Washington DC.

Ethics and data are inextricably linked. Trust, privacy, security, confidentiality and the appropriate use of data are central to advancing digital health.

In 2005, the World Health Assembly endorsed a historic resolution on eHealth, recognizing the value of information and communication technology in the health sector.

This was a seminal moment in a field that was gaining increased attention across the world, in countries both rich and poor.

In 2013, the World Health Assembly endorsed another groundbreaking resolution on eHealth standardization and interoperability, recognizing the value of coordinated action.

And just last year, in 2018, the Assembly yet again endorsed a resolution on digital health, appreciating the importance of digital health interventions and the need for the sector to be effectively regulated and governed.

Each of these resolutions reflect the need for digital technology to become a seamless part of the way health systems function.

Indeed, each of them highlight the opportunities countries have to increase access to health care for all people everywhere.

Excellencies, distinguished participants,

For many years now, the WHO South-East Asia Region has recognized and embraced eHealth’s potential.

Nine of the Region’s 11 Member States, for example, have developed and are implementing digital health, or eHealth strategies and plans.

India has now launched its remarkable Integrated Health Information Platform, a country-wide information system that provides granular geospatial data for managing disease outbreaks among other concerns.

Member States across the Region are rapidly adopting patient-level digital health applications and services, including electronic medical records and mHealth apps and solutions for patients and health care providers.

The WHO-ITU ‘BeHealthy BeMobile’ initiative, for example, which is being rolled out in India among other countries, is preventing a range of NCDs, while India’s mCessation mobile app – which has over 2.5 million subscribers – has helped nearly 500 000 individuals quit smoking.

In Bangladesh, WHO’s Open Smart Register Platform (OpenSRP) has been introduced to monitor pregnancies and help parents and frontline health workers track – and remind them of the need – for ANC visits, as well as immunization.

In Bhutan, Indonesia and Nepal, case-based reporting of HIV, TB and malaria incidence at the point of first detection is meanwhile helping avoid the loss of follow-up.

Hospitals Region-wide are now almost entirely digital.

But as our Regional Strategy for Strengthening eHealth emphasizes, eHealth initiatives will only be as effective as the priorities they reflect.

That means: First, starting with the concerns of users – adequate planning and design with users and beneficiaries will ensure that people-focused care remains front and center of all we do.

Second, adhering to standards and guidelines and aiming for interoperable and flexible solutions. Scalability and sustainability, for example, depend on maximizing the game-changing benefits digital health holds out.

And third, learning from the success and failures of others. Peer-to-peer networking and technical transfer can save time and money, allowing low-income countries to achieve maximum efficiency in the initiatives they pursue.

Distinguished participants,

Last year marked an important milestone for digital health.

The Global Digital Health Partnership was launched, with Australia leading from the front.

As I mentioned, India meanwhile spearheaded a resolution on digital health at the Seventieth Session of the World Health Assembly, which was unanimously endorsed and adopted by WHO’s 194 Member States.

This year will be similarly decisive, as yesterday’s Joint Declaration on Digital Health for Sustainable Development makes abundantly clear.

WHO is committed to ensuring the full power of digital health technologies is harnessed to strengthen health systems and provide the most effective care for all.

To that end, we will continue to facilitate collaboration among key stakeholders, including across sectors and platforms.

We will continue to advocate for the appropriate uptake of digital technologies, keeping beneficiaries – whether patients, health workers, policymakers or public health professionals – at the center of our focus.

And, most importantly, we will continue to work with Member States to explore the feasibility and sustainable introduction of digital technologies while improving the analysis, interpretation and use of data to maximize health outcomes.

As this symposium begins, we should each reflect on the substantial progress already made and our ability to chart further advances.

We should each reflect on the transformative power eHealth has and how we can make full use of it in our quest to achieve health and well-being for all, at all ages, and ensure no one is left behind.

I wish you a productive meeting and look forward to a vigorous discussion.

Thank you.