Africa has 25% of all global cases of illness, but only 2%-3% of the world’s doctors. Approximately every second person on the continent has no access to modern health services, but the growth of new technologies could be about to change this.
The majority of countries in Africa still have fewer than one doctor per 1,000 habitants. The continent has a failing medical infrastructure, a lack of equipment and medication and insufficient specialists. However, new technologies and the development of artificial intelligence in the health sector could be set to provide benefits across the continent.
Health system undergoing change courtesy of new technologies
How can a universal health system be implemented in conditions like those in Africa? The initial strategy has been to utilise information technology to tackle logistical problems and reduce the impact of the lack of equipment and personnel. Services have been implemented to make appointments and to contact specialists, as well as arrange deliveries of supplies to various medical centres.
These tools have not only helped certain African countries to improve their situation, but have also contributed in a broader sense to transforming the African health industry, making it more open to new technologies.
The continent is currently experiencing a rapid growth in Internet connectivity and is soon likely to catch up with capacities in industrialised regions. According to a recent report, of the 10 countries with the highest growth in connectivity, seven are in Africa. The smartphone market also more than doubled between 2014 and 2016. This growth has begun to grab the attention of the big players in the digital sphere such as Google, Facebook, IBM and Uber. Their presence will doubtless then bring about an improvement in Internet services, to facilitate access to their products.
This expansion of the web will go some way to providing a solution to the lack of infrastructure. Several start-ups are already offering mobile e-health applications which for example can provide answers to medical queries or suggest that the patient contacts a doctor.
Artificial intelligence a key potential
In the context of the global development of new technologies in the African health sector, artificial intelligence appears to be particularly promising. IA should be able to help to limit the consequences of the lack of specialists in hospitals. This is the case with a project named SOPHiA which enables genetic analyses to be carried out far more quickly (in a matter of days as opposed to several weeks) and which has a database shared with specialists from around the world, providing easier access to knowledge, diagnostics and treatments.
IA can also help to overcome the lack of infrastructure and qualified personnel in more isolated regions. In rural areas of Kenya, there is a cervical cancer testing project that is based on a simple adapter that can be attached to a smartphone by which the cervix can be photographed. Using an application featuring artificial intelligence which can analyse the photograph, it is possible to efficiently detect anomalies and suggest treatment where required.
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