By Sharon Atieno

Low- and middle-income countries could soon leapfrog high-income countries in their adoption of new artificial intelligence (AI)enabled technologies in health, suggests a report led by the Novartis Foundation and Microsoft.

According to the report, Reimagining Global Health through Artificial intelligence: The Roadmap to AI Maturity, being that other technologies such as mobile phone trading platforms, e-banking, e-commerce and others were adopted faster and more comprehensively in these countries than in high-income countries, there is a likelihood that adoption of health technologies will follow the same trend.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, reduced contact between patients and health providers due to social distancing has led to major growth in technologies such as AI-enabled diagnostics. Many people have turned to digital health care solutions which presents a good opportunity for countries to integrate data and AI into their health systems.

Rwanda, for instance, is leading in Africa with the most digitally connected health system. Its virtual consulting service in May 2020, was surging past two million users, a third of the adult.

“AI can have a big impact not just in lower-income countries, but across all health systems,” said 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.”

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.

“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,” said Dr. Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation and co-chair of the Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital and AI in Health, which crafted the report.

“We have to develop a sustainable ecosystem for AI in health in the countries where it is most desperately needed. 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.”

The report also urges governments to identify and test innovative ways to finance AI in health solutions.

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.

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.

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