AI in African Health Care
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been becoming more prevalent in healthcare systems, helping analyze large amounts of data to improve efficiency in both care and access to medical supplies. AI has also been used to detect health conditions as well as to educate and communicate with patients via mobile phones. In Africa, where healthcare facilities are often underresou
rced and understaffed, AI is beginning to be adopted to make up for these deficiencies. AI in African healthcare has the potential to greatly improve healthcare on the continent, particularly for impoverished and vulnerable populations.

AI in Africa Managing Unstaffed Hospitals

In terms of data analytics, AI has exceeded human ability and with massive amounts of data being compiled within different industries, AI is critical to being able to manage and understand the information that has been collected. Investments in AI companies are also high, with a global investment of over $6 billion in 2017.

African healthcare is in need of new solutions with almost one in two Africans lacking access to modern health services. Even when individuals do have access to facilities, these medical centers are often understaffed. In Nigeria, for example, 80 percent of the trained doctors are seeking employment abroad leaving the nation severely deficient in medical professionals.

AI in African Healthcare and Patients

One of the main ways that AI helps healthcare providers is by prioritizing care for patients. Due to differing levels of patient needs, it can be difficult for medical facilities to make decisions about whom to serve first, particularly when they are underresourced and understaffed. AI in African healthcare helps remove the ethical dilemma by analyzing large amounts of patient data and determining the most efficient and effective way for the doctors that are available to help everyone.

AI also helps with predictive analytics, helping health providers make care proactive rather than reactive. Health care costs skyrocket for patients with more serious conditions and if these conditions can be prevented or treated early, it keeps costs down for both the patient and the facility.

AI in African Healthcare and Medical Supplies

Additionally, AI is used to improve supply chains and ensure facilities have adequate supplies, improving patients’ access to medicine that is potentially life-saving. IT News Africa explains that “an AI-powered chatbot can deliver personalized learning on mobile devices to enhance the supply chain skills of the health workers.”

Kenya has become a pioneer in using AI for supply chains due to a pilot project with the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency (KEMSA). AI is being implemented in 7,000 facilities across the country, and providers are able to interact with it through computer, SMS and voice over mobile data. AI is set to improve the availability of medical supplies by 50 percent.

Provider and Patient Interaction

AI in African health care is also changing the way providers and patients interact, as an AI chatbot could also communicate with patients through their mobile phones, reminding them about appointments or when to pick up their ARVs (HIV) or TB medication. Outside of Africa, a U.S. company called Woebot has created an AI chatbot that can converse with patients and provide simple diagnoses for mental health issues. Similar programs could be developed in Africa, helping those in rural areas get medical expertise without having to travel to a health care facility.

While there are health care facilities in rural areas, they are less likely to be fully staffed and resourced. AI is helping to improve the level of care that patients in these facilities receive by aiding in the diagnosing process. In the absence of a trained doctor, AI can be taught how to recognize and diagnose certain medical conditions.

AI and Cancer Patients

In Kenya, women at rural clinics have begun showing up for their “cervical selfies.” Health care providers take photos, which are then reviewed by AI systems to detect early signs of cancer. In order to train the AI system to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy cervixes, approximately 100,000 photos of cervixes, sorted as healthy tissue, benign inflammation, precancerous lesions and suspected cancer have been uploaded.

While this is a test case for the AI technology, it has the potential to save many lives. Approximately 270,000 women worldwide die from cervical cancer each year, with 85 percent of these deaths occurring in impoverished countries. Cervical cancer is also preventable, treatable and curable if caught early on. It generally takes ten to fifteen years to progress to its most dangerous stage. If AI in African health care can help detect it early, the number of women who reach this point will hopefully decrease.

Other nations have begun using AI to detect other conditions, including breast cancer, cardiac illness, birth asphyxia, eye and skin conditions, and malaria. Detecting malaria requires finding minute parasites in blood samples which can be a challenge for patients with low parasite levels. AI has a greater ability than health care workers to detect these parasites and provide accurate diagnoses.  

Future of AI in African Health Care

Overall, AI in African health care has the ability to more effectively prioritize care, make care proactive instead of reactive, ensure access to medical supplies, communicate with patients and provide more accurate diagnoses. As this technology expands across the continent, health care for Africans, particularly those who currently have limited access to care, will advance greatly and improve the lives of millions of Africans.  

Sara Olk

Photo: Flickr