Director-General's Office

Artificial Intelligence for Good Global Summit

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Geneva, Switzerland
15 May 2018

Dear brother Houlin Zhao, and my brother Mukhisa Kituyi,

Distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, I’d like to thank ITU for including the World Health Organization in this very important event.

You know I am not an artificial intelligence (AI) expert but I realize what AI can be used for.

I believe the subject of AI for health is both important and useful for advancing health for all.

I understand that this conference has both highly specialized AI experts, as well as subject matter experts from public health and health care providers.

With that said, please allow me to make some brief observations and remarks.

Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated WHO’s 70th birthday. We were founded in 1948 on the conviction that health is a human right to be enjoyed by all people, not a luxury for the few.

Health is a rights issue, an end in itself, but also a means to development.

That conviction is as strong today as it was at our birth.

Our top priority is universal health coverage: ensuring that all people can access the health services they need, without facing financial hardship.

The foundation for achieving this vision is strong health systems, based on primary care that delivers the services that people say they need, rather than those other people decide they should have.

But unfortunately, we are a long way from realising this vision. WHO’s latest data shows that at least half of the world’s population lacks access to essential health services, and almost 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty every year because of out-of-pocket health spending.

In less than a week’s time, health ministers from around the world will be gathering here at the Palais des Nations for the World Health Assembly.

Among the many issues and resolutions they will be considering, one stands out: WHO’s 13th General Programme of Work – our strategic plan for the next 5 years.

The plan articulates our mission: to promote health, to keep the world safe and to serve the vulnerable.

To keep ourselves accountable, we have set 3 strategic targets:

  • 1 billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage;
  • 1 billion more people better protected from health emergencies; and
  • 1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being.

These are what we call the “triple billion” targets.

Digital technologies and artificial intelligence will be vital tools in achieving all three of these targets.

Electronic health records are essential for ensuring continuity of care.

Artificial intelligence is playing an increasing role in disease surveillance and our defenses against outbreaks;

And digital technologies, which are already vital for diagnostics, are also becoming more and more integrated into treatments as well.

The world today is very different from what it looked like 70 years ago. Although communicable diseases like malaria and tuberculosis are still with us, the biggest killers today are noncommunicable diseases that are associated with increasing affluence and urbanization, like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Another major challenge is the practical difficulty of delivering health services to every person in a country in an equitable way.

But today, digital technologies and artificial intelligence give us a wealth of tools that we did not have 70 years ago.

Mobile technologies and telemedicine can make a huge difference in helping to reach people in the remotest villages with medical services. For example, Rwanda is now piloting the use of drones to deliver blood supplies.

By the way, while I was preparing for this I was in DRC, where there is an Ebola outbreak, and I was at the epicenter, a place called Bikoro, and I was thinking about how can we really speed up our use of AI and other digital technologies, especially in emergency situations. It’s possible. In this summit I want you to give it more attention and discuss the use of AI and digital technologies even more strongly in emergency situations.

More than 120 countries have now developed digital health strategies, and this number will only increase.

This is an important area of WHO’s work. For example, the “Be Healthy, Be Mobile” project between WHO and ITU is scaling up the use of mobile technology in eight priority countries to deliver health messages, including smoking cessation campaigns in Costa Rica, and help for people in Senegal to manage their diabetes during Ramadan.

But the use of big data and machine learning hold the promise of transforming health at the population level.

For example, artificial intelligence can greatly improve our response to disease outbreaks through enhanced early warning, forecasting epidemics, improved decision making for outbreak response and simulation tools.

At next week’s World Health Assembly, our 194 Member States will be discussing a resolution on digital health, which will no doubt include discussion on the use of AI for health.

There are clear opportunities to use AI to make health services both more accessible and more effective. By making data collection and triage more efficient, AI can reduce the costs of care, making services more affordable for patients.

Collecting more and better data could see services tailored to people’s needs, leading to better health outcomes and better-performing health systems.

It could also help us predict the risk of future health events from routinely collected data—for example, the onset of a heart attack in a patient with high blood pressure.

But the benefits of artificial intelligence are not only a hope for the future. There are many examples of how artificial intelligence is already advancing health.

For example, AI is being used to give paraplegic patients improved mobility;

to make diagnosis faster and more efficient;

to scan the news for emerging and re-emerging disease threats;

to manage road traffic, reducing crashes and increasing road safety;

and to develop new medicines and vaccines.

And there are numerous other ways.

Of course, with every new technology, there are always risks of abuse.

Even as we enjoy the benefits of artificial intelligence, we must not lose sight of human rights.

We must ensure that national governments have the appropriate guardrails in place.

WHO stands ready to support all countries both to realize the promise of artificial intelligence, and to ensure the appropriate safeguards are in place. AI is the future of health, but safeguards are important too.

Thank you once again. I wish you a very productive meeting, and I very much look forward to reading the outcome of this very important summit.

I’d like to finally underline our really strong partnership with ITU and my brother, Houlin Zhao. We’re working very, very closely, understanding that AI’s contribution to the future of health is very great, and we have to embrace it. We’re doing it by putting the two organizations closer than ever before.

Thank you. Xie xie, xiong di.