Sun. Oct 1st, 2023

How tech can improve healthcare worldwide

By Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General

* This article originally appeared in The Commonwealth Health Report 2020.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) underpin today’s digital economy – throughout the Commonwealth and throughout the world. This is especially exciting in the healthcare sector because of its potential to improve and even save lives.

From remote surgery to better diagnoses, to an ever-widening array of mobile health applications, technology is making us healthier every day. Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered technologies, such as skin-disease recognition, could even be deployed on some six billion smartphones in the next few years.

The potential is enormous and the ITU – the United Nation’s specialised agency for ICTs – is ready to help lead the charge.

AI for Health

ITU has pursued several important ‘AI for Health’ initiatives, including partnering with the WHO to establish a Focus Group on AI for Health. The group is working towards the standardisation of a framework for the performance benchmarking of AI for Health algorithms to address health issues such as breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, vision loss and skin lesions. The objective is to provide regulatory bodies with the information necessary to determine whether or not AI algorithms have proven themselves accurate enough to enter clinical settings – similar to national health regulators’ approval of new pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

The Focus Group on AI for Health is also improving our understanding of how to best navigate the challenges surrounding access to health data and the appropriate use of that data. It has developed a data handling policy enabling the initiative to accept both open data and undisclosed test datasets.

One problem that has been recognised is the lack of interoperability between different databases used in hospitals, even within the same country.
ITU international standards are developed specifically to help provide for such interoperability and to create a worldwide market that reduces costs through economies of scale.

The importance of standards

It is important that the technology used in the health sector complies with international standards to ensure interoperability and security, and that radio equipment operates in harmonised radio-frequency bands to avoid harmful interference.

This encourages and protects critical investment and enables cost advantages by reducing the price of equipment and user devices, thereby enabling affordable services. This key work helps ensure more people across the world are connected and able to benefit from the widening range of digital health services offered via wireless communication.

Every ITU standard relies on the participation of key stakeholders, and ITU benefits considerably through its large and rapidly growing private sector membership of over 600 companies and more than 160 universities. It is these experts that drive the work and produce the output, mainly in the form of international technical standards.

We are looking to members to develop further standards that can improve both access to care and the quality of care. Sometimes, however, the ICT solutions for health are far simpler.

Since 2013, for instance, ITU and the WHO have been working on the Be He@lthy, Be Mobile initiative in 11 countries, using mobile technologies for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases. Tens of thousands of people in Commonwealth countries such as India and Zambia can use mobile phone applications to help manage their diabetes, cervical cancer and tobacco use.

It all starts with connectivity

Of course, people will only be able to benefit fully from these developments if they have access to broadband communications. Nearly half the world is still not using the internet. There will only be universal health coverage when everyone is connected.

The good news is that there are some groundbreaking initiatives underway to help provide affordable internet access to today’s unserved rural and remote communities.

Small satellites, satellites with all-electric propulsion and low-Earth orbiting (LEO) satellites are among these game-changing innovations, opening new use cases such as the backhaul for 5G and the Internet of Things, and enabling a range of solutions from digital financial services to better healthcare and smarter cities. These trends also offer new and more economical solutions to connect the unconnected, who are mostly in rural areas.

In addition to satellite-based technologies, new stratospheric-based radio systems, referred to as High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS), are being developed specifically to provide affordable broadband connectivity and telecommunication services in underserved communities in rural and remote areas, including mountainous, coastal and desert areas.

ITU manages the only international treaty on the use of the radiofrequency spectrum and satellite orbits – the Radio Regulations. This treaty was updated in late 2019 at the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference in Egypt. A new globally harmonised spectrum will be found for these new advances − among many other decisions. These decisions will pave the way to achieving ITU’s mission to connect the world, which will bring so many benefits to so many people, including progress toward universal health coverage.

Working together, across the Commonwealth and beyond

Of course, we recognise that we must all work together to leverage ICTs to improve healthcare and accelerate sustainable development more broadly.
Collaboration, coordination and cooperation between national, regional and international organisations – and between the public and private sectors – is now more important than ever. It is also more challenging since there is an increasing number of organisations using the technology for their own purposes.

We have to ensure that we bring our own specific competencies to the table, avoid duplication of effort and work for the common good. For our part, ITU will continue to bring its core competencies to the table and we are very keen to further strengthen our cooperation with the Commonwealth so as to nurture a digital future where technology is accessible, affordable, safe and trustworthy. In the past, ITU has collaborated on many Commonwealth initiatives, for example the Commonwealth Cybercrime Initiative by the Commonwealth Secretariat, which led to the Commonwealth Cyber Declaration, the world’s largest and most geographically diverse intergovernmental commitment on cybersecurity cooperation.

With 2019 marking the 70th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth, I believe it is increasingly relevant as a compelling force for good in the world, and an effective network for promoting development.

At the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Her Majesty the Queen referred to the Commonwealth’s generosity of spirit. May this spirit guide our work as we strive to create a common approach to promote the digital economy. And may it continue to bring the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, ITU and all the other players determined to achieve this, closer together.

Photo by Luis Enrique Ascui/Getty Images