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Digital Health for Digital Development

September 19, 2011
New York, NY

Thank you, Denis, for that kind introduction, and good afternoon. Before I begin, I want to acknowledge all the partners here on stage with us. If we’re going to reduce the burden of chronic disease around the world – which I believe is one of the greatest health challenges of this century – government cannot do it alone.

When you look at the most successful public health efforts across the globe, the private sector is involved. The health care community is involved. Non-profits and foundations are involved. So it’s very encouraging to see all of these groups represented on stage today.

Just as no single group can conquer chronic disease on its own, we also can’t afford to rely on any one approach. To turn the tide on chronic disease, we need to make progress on several fronts.

We need to expand access to preventive care that can help catch problems early. We need to promote healthy eating and exercise. We need to do a better job helping people manage their chronic diseases, so they avoid the worst complications.

But today I want to focus on perhaps the single, biggest step we can take to reduce the crushing burden of chronic disease, which is reducing tobacco use.

This year alone, tobacco will kill nearly 6 million people around the world, including nearly half a million in the US, making it the leading cause of preventable death for America and the world. And it carries a staggering economic cost too, draining more than half a trillion dollars a year from the global economy. Meanwhile, every day another 80,000 young people around the world become addicted to tobacco products before they’ve even entered adulthood. At a time when the deadly effects of tobacco have been known for years, this is unacceptable.

The good news is that we now have a growing set of effective strategies for reducing tobacco use. Later this week for example, we will be announcing a new Clinton Global Initiative Commitment along with other public and private partners to begin ridding workplaces around the world of second hand smoke. These policies have helped protect millions of people in the US and other countries from deadly second hand smoke. Now, we need to help them be adopted more widely.

But policies like these are not enough. We also need to reach out to people directly with facts and information to help them understand the consequences of starting smoking, and to help those who have already started smoking to quit. And these days, there’s no better way to reach people than their cell phone.

We’ve studied this in the US, and we’ve found there are certain people who will not pick up a newspaper. They won’t turn on the radio. They may not read the flyer that their doctor gives them. But they will check their text messages.

And we know that cell phones are just as ubiquitous around the world. In Africa, for example, the number of mobile phones has grown from fewer than four million in 1998 to more than four hundred million today. That gives us a huge opportunity to reach people quickly and cheaply with messages that could save their life.

We’re still in the early stages of figuring out how to do this, but we already have some successes. One model is text4baby, a product that was developed through a public-private partnership that allows pregnant women and new mothers to get text messages about immunizations, nutrition, and other key factors that affect their health and the health of their children. Since its launch last year, we’ve already signed up more than 225,000 users and sent nearly 18 million health messages.

But we are just beginning to tap the potential of mobile technologies. That’s why last year, I established a new task force that brought together public health experts from across our department to ask how we could use mobile technologies more effectively. Today, they released their recommendations, and I encourage you to go read more about them at www.hhs.gov/open.

But we’re not waiting to put them into action. Today, we’re also announcing the creation of a new library containing text messages developed by experts at the National Cancer Institute to help people quit smoking. These messages offer tips, motivation, and health information – all tailored to the individual user’s responses. They provide the day-to-day feedback and encouragement that you can’t get from a doctor, but that can make all the difference when it comes to breaking an addiction.

What’s even more important is that, using a platform created by the mHealth Alliance, we’re making these messages available to the rest of the world. We’re currently working with partners to help translate the messages into different languages. And eventually, we hope this can be a global resource, so that whether you’re a public health minister in Chile or a foundation in Chad, you’ll have a ready-made tool for breaking tobacco addictions at your fingertips.

In the last few decades, we have learned that we cannot afford to be complacent in our battle against tobacco use. It is not enough to simply point out the health consequences and expect smoking rates to go down on their own. It won’t happen.

If we want to reduce the terrible toll of death and disease that tobacco takes on our communities, we need to be proactive and creative in looking for new ways to reach people with health messages that can save their life. And our best chance of doing that is working together.

That’s what this event is all about, and I look forward to working with all of you in the months and years to come to reduce smoking and chronic disease around the world.

Thank you.