Artificial Intelligence in Africa’s health care system

Posted on March 24, 2017 12:00 am

Use of artificial intelligence in health care is common in Western world but Africa is now catching up. A new study by some of Africa’s leading not-for-profit health fund has revealed Africans are ready to embrace Artificial Intelligence in health care, opening the way for further innovation and improved care for patients. The study indicated over 75 per cent of Africans in ten countries namely Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Cameroon are comfortable with Artificial Intelligence being used to diagnose common medical problems and interpret test results. They are even willing to allow Artificial Intelligence to be used in prescribing treatment for patients at 69%.The study investigated the future of medicine and health care, and reveals that while the advancement of technology is largely seen as a positive, there is still a healthy dose of scepticism and uncertainty about how and why technology might be used in the health system. When considering the use and impact of Artificial Intelligence in health care, the study reveals Africans see clear benefits in what was once only seen as futuristic.Close to half of respondents think Artificial Intelligence is a major step in the right direction for earlier disease detection and reduced incidence of death. Improved efficiency, accuracy and keeping long-term hospital patients comfortable at home are also revealed as benefit of embracing Artificial Intelligence technology.Importantly, more than half of Africans believe the use of Artificial Intelligence will reduce the pressures on the current health care system and almost half think the technology can assist in relieving medical staff to focus on more important tasks at hand. However, people also acknowledge some of the limitations of Artificial Intelligence technology and identified privacy concerns over patient records and medical confidentiality and the lack of human intuition as issues.

It’s clear that Africans can see the benefit of technological advancements in health, particularly where it can be used to prevent disease and improve patient care. However, it seems Africans are also torn between the perceived positives and the potential limitations of removing the human element. This healthy dose of scepticism is important for the sector to recognise and respond to, stakeholders need to be clear about the benefits but also to be very open about any potential risks. It’s easy to get excited about technology that can help save lives and potentially revolutionise patient care in a continent with more than one billion people. At the same time, Africans need to be aware of the implications of change from the true cost of technological advancements to other ethical and personal considerations. Africa health care system is innovating and it is important the innovators do it at the right speed to address changing health needs but also to ensure consumers are comfortable. The future is already in Africa in many ways and there are a number of recent inventions and technological applications that will certainly change the face of Africa’s health care industry in the future. There’s need for innovators to continue to support innovation that benefits Africans and promote education and clear communication so consumers understand changes in the industry, now and in the future.

Imagine a child in war torn Democratic Republic of Congo requires a life-saving operation, choice will be between human medical staff where multiple studies have shown a 90% chance of saving life or specialists using an array of robots which research has shown gives a 95% chance of survival. Most probably the parents of the kid or guardian in Democratic Republic of Congo would opt for the course of action that is more likely to save their child which is an array of robots. What this will mean to hospitals in place like Democratic Republic of Congo and rest of Africa is that they need to be robotic compliant going forward. Financial pressures will inevitably force industry and governments to recognise that when robots can do something better and for the same price as humans, the robot way will be the only way. What African hospitals should do is recognise the potential to be more efficient and specialise in key procedures and that organise the workflow in a more streamlined and industrial way. Me think that insurance costs and litigation will hopefully reduce as robots perform procedures more precisely and with fewer complications. Time has come when Africans have to accept that humans are far from perfect and mistakes are inevitable in health care but perhaps going forward doctorless hospitals in Africa will save more lives and reduce the cost of health care in a continent where millions of people do not have access to health care.

Contador Harrison