In Africa, as in much of the world, artificial intelligence (AI) is the latest buzzword amongst healthcare professionals. Globally, we saw an explosion last year of various AI generative platforms, promising unparalleled potential to solve some of the continent’s biggest problems.
This has triggered a (sometimes breathless) dialogue regarding the potential for AI in the African context. Could it help the healthcare sector leapfrog to the latest technologies and overcome a host of complex challenges that have hampered healthcare for decades?
Answering that question is more complex than a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’
While it is absolutely true that AI can play a role in Africa’s healthcare evolution, it cannot be our starting point. We must start with the “ABCs”, as it were. Then we can leverage AI in the service of these broader goals.
The ABCs of Healthcare
More than 10 years ago, Khalish Chand, who received an OBE for his service to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), outlined the ABCs of healthcare (Access, Behavior and Clinical governance) as a prescription to overhaul the NHS. His framework remains a powerful tool to help us think about Africa’s healthcare prioritization, sequencing and resource allocation.
In Africa, this means ensuring that all people have access to the full range of quality health services they need, when and where they need them, and without enduring financial hardship. This requires investing in the infrastructure, logistics and health financing models that enable adequate access to care for the most vulnerable people in our communities.
The behavior of Africa’s doctors, nurses, community health workers and all healthcare providers toward their patients must always be empathetic, understanding and respectful. We must work with African patients to shift them from passive recipients of care to proactive and empowered “own-health advocates.” At the same time, investing in Africa’s healthcare workforce is critical to ensuring the health sector can attract, train and retain the best people to serve our communities.
For health ministries and private providers, this requires a robust clinical governance framework that encompasses appropriate risk management, compliance and standards, and quality information and evidence-based approaches to managing healthcare systems. This means the right laws, regulations and policies must be put in place to ensure the best health outcomes.
We can see a commitment to these ABCs in the New Public Health Order for Africa, launched by the African Union in 2021. This initiative addresses deep structural public health deficiencies at national, regional and global levels by focusing action in five areas: fortifying public health institutions; strengthening the public health workforce; expanding African manufacturing of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics; increasing domestic resources for health security; and building respectful and action-oriented partnerships.
ABC to lead, AI to support
With this context, it is clear that AI and broader digitization can help fulfil the ABCs in an African context.
However, it is important to note that this is made possible, in part, because of Africa’s enormous success at leveraging digitization to innovate African solutions to African challenges. For example, mobile money was born in Kenya and revolutionized the financial, economic, and social landscape for millions of Africans. Africa enjoys high mobile phone penetration rates, and a growing youthful population is conversant and comfortable with an increasingly digitized lifestyle.
This infrastructure and outlook make it much easier for healthcare providers to deploy digital connectivity solutions such as telehealth consultations or remote health monitoring. One result is more people can access more primary and specialized care, even in remote locations.
Beyond consultations, this digitization includes devices such as handheld ultrasound machines that can extend the reach of this important diagnostic tool to rural and remote primary health centers.
Another example: in a region facing a shortage of nurses and hospital beds, technologies such as remote ECG (electrocardiogram) devices mean doctors can send patients home and still ensure they are being monitored safely and confidentially over the internet.
When it comes to behavior, smart wearables can help patients keep track of important health data, while AI-enabled medical imaging equipment can help technicians complete scans more accurately and more quickly, shortening scan times by 75% or more, and giving clinicians better information to enhance diagnostics and treatment. AI-enabled electronic medical record software can help clinicians spend more time with patients by reducing time spent on simple decisions and paperwork.
Both access and behavior can be addressed through a just-signed agreement whereby GE HealthCare will develop AI-assisted ultrasound imaging auto-assessment tools. Seeking to expand access in low-and-middle income countries across diverse points of care, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has provided a grant to support development of tools to aid healthcare professionals—even those without specialized training or experience with ultrasound—with clinical decision information in areas of obstetrics, maternal and neonatal lung ultrasound screening, and pediatric lung health.
For health ministries and hospital groups, connecting data from equipment and operations to AI-powered software in a secure cloud platform can generate clinical and productivity insights that can help doctors improve diagnoses and facilities optimize patient flow. That’s a clear win for clinical governance.
As I wrote earlier this year, this is an important and exciting time for African healthcare. The determination, the vision, and the funding are available to make major strides in country after country. We must continue this momentum by prioritizing development of primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare infrastructure and other interventions that support the early detection and prevention of disease. We must promote skills development and job creation, and approach all these needs from a holistic perspective that is not siloed by technology, geography, disease, or organization.
To accelerate this momentum, all stakeholders must come together to pursue what patients and populations need now: increased healthcare access, expanded infrastructure, more healthcare workers with the training they need, and healthcare systems and care pathways that are holistic.
AI can play a valuable role. It is not, however, the answer. Making it so would be a distraction that could impact care to millions.
GE HealthCare is committed to working with regional partners across Africa to create a world where healthcare has no limits. At this moment of unbounded potential, those of us working in African healthcare must remain focused on the ABCs of high-quality, patient-focused healthcare to all people and communities across the continent.
Eyong Ebai is General Manager Sub-Saharan Africa at GE HealthCare (www.GEHealthcare.in/)