How AI can transform healthcare in Africa

Artificial intelligence is hyped to transform healthcare around the world and not just in higher-income countries like the US and China.

AI is being used across Africa to aid healthcare, from managing datasets in Morocco to reading genomes in South Africa; and from analysing medical images in Ghana to tracking COVID-19 in Ethiopia.

“The last three years has seen a boom in people using AI to solve healthcare problems on the continent,” said Ayomide Owoyemi, a public health and technology expert at the University of Illinois, US.

The technology is helping to deal with the region’s biggest healthcare challenges, including malaria, tuberculosis (TB) and HIV/AIDs.

TB diagnostics in Mozambique

So far, the most successful AI projects have been with disease diagnostics. For instance, health workers in Mozambique have tested AI as a way to detect TB in a high-security jail. They used portable X-ray machines connected to an AI programme to diagnose the disease in people in less than five minutes and as accurately as doctors. 

“This was the first time it was demonstrated that this AI approach can work in prisons. Now this needs to be scaled up to everybody who needs it, ultimately, to the whole country,” said Suvanand Sahu, deputy executive director of StopTB, who led the project in Mozambique.

TB is a major health care issue. The WHO estimates 10 million people develop TB globally each year, but says that about three million people are not getting the health care they need.

“TB is the biggest killer disease among all infections, and while global TB incidence is declining, it’s not declining as fast as we would like. AI technology is evolving and there are many uses for it in health care, and reducing the global TB burden is one of them,” Sahu said.

AI filling the gap of missing doctors

One of AI’s biggest benefits in Africa is helping health workers do more with limited resources.

Owoyemi said that AI can fill the roles of doctors and other highly skilled health workers who leave the continent to work in other parts of the world.

“One of the biggest challenges we face now on the continent is that countries can’t retain their health care workforce. Nigeria loses many doctors to wealthier countries. It’s a battle we can’t win because people move to where pay is better,” he said.

Low numbers of doctors means that most people who currently deliver health care at the primary level are community health workers.

“What AI can do is to augment lower skilled health care workers who have actually been delivering health care. This is essential over the next years because we are going to keep losing doctors,” Owoyemi said.

Retaining AI projects in Africa

AI is estimated to bring $1.2 trillion in economic growth to Africa by 2030. However, a major challenge is retaining the benefits of AI projects in Africa in the long run.

Owoyemi said most health care projects so far had been pilot studies that seldom translated to long-term changes in the system.

“Programmes are mostly funded for two or three years from the outside and use external workforces. Afterwards, the programme packs up and leaves. But when African governments are funded, they can create organisations and policies that ensure the programme stays alive for as long as possible,” he said.

Owoyemi said it’s important that African countries start creating specific funds and agencies to manage the long-term integration of AI into health care systems.

With local governments and organisations leading the way, they can focus on health care priorities, with AI projects set by local needs, rather than what external partners dictate.

And the benefits would be much wider than health care. AI health care projects need skilled workers trained in sectors such as computing, education and energy.

“If a local government runs AI projects, they have to train people and establish systems of governance and those skills and knowledge are retained in the system. This brings sustainable and long-term benefits,” said Owoyemi.

Infrastructure challenges

Rolling out more AI health care programmes in Africa has its challenges. One is limited infrastructure as large parts of Africa don’t have the power to supply internet access to run large-scale AI projects reliably.

“The difficulty is deploying computing systems to front-line health care workers. They work in places where infrastructure is poor: no power, no PCs; so we need to consider how we can deploy AI,” said Owoyemi.

But things are improving as there are major programmes underway at African universities and private companies collecting health care data in Africa, allowing local companies to train AI models with region-specific data.

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