AI-driven healthcare solutions adopted faster in low- and middle-income countries

September 2020 Viewpoints Willem van Altena

Low- and middle-income countries could soon leapfrog high-income countries in their adoption of new AI-enabled technologies in health, suggests a report led by the Novartis Foundation and Microsoft. The report is titled ‘Reimagining Global Health through Artificial Intelligence: The Roadmap to AI Maturity’.

According to the authors of the report, high-income countries tend to be more tentative than low- and middle-income countries when it comes to embracing new technologies, such as mobile phone trading platforms, e-banking, e-commerce, and even blockchain applications. Adoption of health technologies is likely to follow the same trend, with digital transformation accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social distancing

As a result of social distancing becoming the norm almost overnight, health providers and patients have been forced to adopt AI-enabled diagnostics and other e-health solutions. Millions more people have sought digital health care solutions – prompting many countries to integrate data and AI into their health systems.

From reactive to preventive

“Many countries are ill-prepared to address a new emerging disease such as COVID-19 in addition to the existing burden of infectious diseases and the ever-increasing tide of chronic diseases. Digital technology and AI are essential enablers to re-engineer health systems from being reactive to proactive, predictive, and even preventive,” says dr. Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation and co-chair of the Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital and AI in Health, which wrote the report. The Commission was established in 2010 by the International Telecommunication Union and UNESCO to expand broadband access to accelerate progress towards national and international development targets.

“We have to develop a sustainable ecosystem for AI in health in the countries where it is most desperately needed,” Dr. Aerts continues. “This has to happen while ensuring fairness and access for all. As health systems build back after the pandemic, technological innovation has to be a core part of the agenda.”

Massive change

“AI can have a big impact not just in lower-income countries, but across all health systems,” adds Paul Mitchell of Microsoft, who co-chaired the Working Group. “It’s clear COVID-19 is driving massive change in the use of technology in health – we are seeing in a few months what I would have expected normally to take years, if not decades.”

AI in developing countries

AI is already changing the way health systems in developing countries work. In rural areas of Rwanda, one doctor may serve as many as 60,000 people. The government is working with a private sector partner, Babylon Health, to give every person aged over 12 access to digital health consultations. More than 30 percent of Rwanda’s adult population has signed up. The new partnership will also see the introduction of an AI-powered triage and symptom checker platform.

And in India, hospitals are using AI to predict accurately a patient’s risk of a heart attack seven years before it might happen. Resources and medicine can then specifically target people at highest risk. In Malaysia, Brazil, and the Philippines, AI is being used to tackle multiple mosquito-borne diseases including dengue, Zika, and chikungunya. The program continuously pulls multidimensional data from over 90 public databases and adjusts for 276 variables that influence the spread of disease to predict when outbreaks are likely.

Magic Box

UNICEF has developed an AI program to reduce the social and economic burden of outbreaks through targeted population health measures. Its Magic Box program both predicts when outbreaks are likely, and allows health systems to reorganize their resources, alert health workers and launch public health campaigns, so they can respond better and faster to emergencies.

Governments should identify and test innovative ways to finance AI in health solutions, the report says. To ensure financial accessibility in the long run for everyone, national reimbursement of digital and AI-enabled health services is key. Secure and privacy-preserving data governance needs to be part of ensuring a sustainable infrastructure.

Further reading
You can read the entire report on the website of the Broadband Commission.

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