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Revolutionizing Healthcare for Every Filipino  

Office of the Vice President
4 October 2017

Message at the HealthTech Challenge Philippines
Asian Institute of Management

First of all, I would like to congratulate the finalists of the HealthTech Challenge Philippines; and the Embassy of Switzerland and AIM for organizing this competition. It brings me hope that some of the brightest innovators are determined to come up with innovative solutions for our healthcare industry.

With the advent of smartphones and IT industries, technology has been rapidly changing the way we live and work. Waze, Uber, and Grab are helping us cope up with the increased demand for speed and mobility. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are disrupting how we connect with our peers and even how we work.

Without exception, companies, individuals, and governments have scrambled to adapt to these ever-changing times. And with the power of technology, health-focused tech startups and solutions represent an important opportunity to widen access to basic services in ways that have never been done before.

Switzerland is no stranger to innovation. Health technology is one of the fastest growing and most innovative sectors of the Swiss economy.  Uepaa! [pronounced weh-pa] for instance, is a Zurich-based company that built an app for people in remote areas such as the Swiss alps. From the farthest areas, you request for emergency services, even when cellular, internet or GPS connectivity is not available. No wonder Switzerland has one of the best healthcare systems in the world.

Here in our country, the issue of public health remains a silent crisis. We have a ratio of only one doctor for every 33,000 patients, while so many of our countrymen remain at risk and vulnerable to sickness, accidents, and calamities with no medical facility nearby to address their needs. And these areas do not even have basic medical equipment, adequate infrastructure, and the staff are often undermanned or lack training. In fact, DOH says that fewer doctors are willing to go to rural areas and barangay health workers are underpaid, if not working for free, and sometimes, they are the only medical practitioners in the community.

I once visited Quezon, Quezon, a coastal town in the southern part of Alabat Island, south of Manila. I found out that the doctor assigned there came from the DoH’s Doctor’s To The Barrios program. She sends her medical findings to the Philippine General Hospital to be analyzed by medical specialists through a text-messaging app designed specifically for doctors. To me, it was an impressive piece of innovation because it met a critical need in a place that had been left behind by progress, virtually invisible to the world.

We see these kinds of places all the time, in our visits to the poorest and most remote communities around the country. We saw how so many of our people still do not have access to even the most basic healthcare. I do not know if you have heard of Agutaya, but it is a very small municipality in Northern Palawan. To be able to get to Agutaya, you have to take a 10-hour boat ride from Coron. That means its nearest hospital, its nearest critical health facility, is a 10-hour boat ride away and that boat does not even travel every day.

When we went there, we saw something even more alarming: Grade 5 students were just as small as the Grade 1 students. The doctor who went with us said the children were suffering from a condition called stunting. And the bad thing about stunting is that it is irreversible after the age of five. Not only does it affect the children’s height but also their mental faculties.

It was so disheartening to find how limited access to healthcare is depriving so many of our young people to reach their full potential. When we went back to Manila after Agutaya, we learned that at least 3.5 million Filipino suffer from stunting.

This is the sad reality of public health in our country: while access to technology has exploded, so many of our people are still left behind. How do we then revolutionize our country’s health care, making sure that no Filipino is left behind?

I believe the answer lies in your hands. By expanding tech startups like yours with solutions that directly addresses society’s greatest needs, the possibilities are endless.

The good news is the Philippines is a promising market for tech companies of all types. Filipinos have some of the world’s highest levels of online brand engagement, growth in internet penetration, social media account usage, and other indicators of digital uptake. Despite the challenges in the ICT sector, particularly on Internet infrastructure and connectivity, opportunities abound. We have other competitive advantages such as low operating costs, English language proficiency and minimal business competition. Ultimately, the Filipinos’ inherent creativity and ingenuity are something that the government and the private sector can capitalize on.

As a matter of fact, the government is very supportive of expanding tech startups, acknowledging how they have the potential to address various problems in the country. The DOST has recently launched its roadmap for digital startups last August. It aimed to develop a coherent and consistent strategic plan to generate startups that drive economic growth and provide solutions to our society’s most pervasive issues.

I do not know if you have already heard about the local startup called Sustainable Alternative Lighting or (SALt). It was co-founded by young Filipina scientist and engineer Aisa Mijeno and her brother, Raphael. Aisa’s vision was to find alternative sources of energy for our marginalized communities. So what she did was she developed an electrochemical LED lamp only with saltwater as electrolyte that can charge low-power mobile devices.

SALt started by joining the Philippine-based IdeaSpace competition, battling other startups for a spot in the top 10 and an opportunity to receive funding. SaLt then went on to compete on the international level, becoming the only Asian startup to reach the top 5 in the World Startup Competition. And it wowed the likes of Alibaba founder Jack Ma and former US President Barack Obama.

The inspiration and science behind SaLt was simple: to light up the rest of the Philippines by providing electricity using only table salt and water. And it started with a vision and one person who was willing to turn that vision into a reality.

I believe the future of our nation lies in the hands of innovative entrepreneurs like you. When businesses and startups like yours put the Filipino people at the forefront of your efforts, progress can finally reach the last, the least, and the lost.

Clearly, there is no better time than today to do more and to do better for our people.

Currently, through the Office of the Vice President’s flagship program called Angat Buhay, we are doing a series of consultations from the private sector and the government on how to empower our industries including information technology and business process outsources while at the same time how to effectively create job opportunities, especially to those living in the countryside.  It is no surprise that the outcry of our people are sustainable jobs.

That is why we hope to partner with you and that one of these days, we will be able to get to talk to you and learn directly from you. Because the truth is, making our country better is a shared responsibility. The government cannot do it alone. We need your creativity and innovativeness in driving our country forward.

With the opportunities at your doorstep, I hope that you will continue to find ways to do things better as you move forward. Disrupt, innovate, so that more of our people will have the health services they need and they deserve. Uphold best practices among yourselves, exchange experiences and ideas with your peers, and collaborate on projects.

The impossible can be possible when we are willing to do everything we can to succeed and WHEN we do it together.

So congratulations once again to the finalists of the Healthtech Challenge and let this competition inspire you to keep pushing the limits of innovation as you respond to the challenges of our time.

Thank you very much, at mabuhay kayong lahat!