Can AI Revolutionise The Healthcare System in Africa?

Taida Nando for Distilled Post

Artificial intelligence has transformed from a science fiction concept into a technology tool for diagnosing diseases. African countries are now taking note of this growing market and using biotech and technology to develop new and innovative healthcare solutions.

Who has tapped into the market?

Considering that Africa has sufficient power to provide the infrastructure necessary to make technology work in healthcare, AI offers a unique opportunity for poverty alleviation and a chance to push the content in line with what has been evident in other parts of the world.

Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa are among the countries that have harnessed AI technology. Currently, these four countries account for a third of start-up incubators and accelerators on the continent.

Tanzania and Zanzibar are also creating places where they can work, with Zanzibar recently being referred to as 'Silicon Zanzibar.' As part of Rwanda's efforts to catch up with its neighbours and develop ethical and inclusive AI systems, the country has been developing a national AI policy agenda.

Companies to watch

A South African investment holdings company has focused on making it easy for patients to access their medical images, share them with their doctors, and get involved in their care. As part of the MyPocketHealth platform, patients will have access to remote mental well-being services and financial wellness opportunities. Preventative care services provided by the app will also relieve pressure on primary healthcare facilities in both private and public healthcare.

Viebeg Technologies, a venture capital-backed health tech company in Rwanda, uses artificial intelligence to manage the supply chain process and ensure healthcare facilities have the exact medical supplies they need. As of early 2022, the company announced it is helping to expand access to affordable healthcare in Central and East Africa by assisting healthcare facilities in procuring supplies in real-time.

As part of their mission to provide high-quality healthcare to the most vulnerable patient populations in the world, Uganda's e-health start-up Neopenda has made use of artificial intelligence to build medical devices for emerging markets. Its first and most successful product is a wearable biometric monitoring device that continuously measures four vital signs: pulse rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygen saturation, and temperature.With the device, not only are four vital signs continuous but it is also independent of any facility's infrastructure since it provides an out-of-the-box solution.

With limited resources, Tanzania's children under five die over 800,000 preventable deaths each year and 1.2 million pregnancies go unattended. A digital health project aims to improve health outcomes for women and children in the country. Through personalised, digitally enabled care, Afya-Tekis improving maternal, child, and adolescent health in Tanzania through generous support from Foundation Botnar. Patients can interact with the health system wherever they are: at their doorstep with community health workers (CHWs), at drug dispensing outlets or primary health facilities.

Using emerging digital tools, such as predictive analytics and biometric identification, this initiative is the first of its kind. As part of the initiative, AI-enabled health assistants will also be assessed for future integration.

Benefits of AI in African Healthcare

With digital technologies applied to healthcare, efficiency can be improved, costs can be reduced, and staff workload can be streamlined. Considering that African countries are experiencing a 'brain death' of health workers, technological solutions to educate people about their health and teach them self-care will make a difference.

African health tech may become more accessible with AI advancements. Using this technology, patients will be able to ask medical questions and get instant answers, no matter where they are located. Additionally, it promises to improve precision and efficiency, resulting in fewer human errors and fewer doctor visits.

What are the challenges?

In a similar fashion to other countries, African countries are struggling with healthcare accessibility and affordability, while chronic disease rates are on the rise and healthcare workforce shortages are severe.

Data from underserved communities remain absent from digital records due to disparities in digital inclusion. As a result, AI solutions must be carefully designed to reflect the diversity of socio-economic and healthcare settings, and be accompanied by digital skills training, community engagement, and awareness-raising.

A tool for great potential in the future

Overall, the African health tech sector is gaining momentum, and access to private sector funding and venture capital will help drive research and biotechnology forward.

In light of this newfound potential, it will come as no surprise if more stakeholders around the globe begin partnering with African countries to implement AI in healthcare ethically and responsibly.