Dr Chat GPT: Can AI improve healthcare in Africa?

by Dr Desirè Ruhinda is a qualified medical doctor and co-founder & COO at Medikea; a telehealth company based in Tanzania. He is currently studying an MPhil in Inclusive Innovation at the UCT Graduate School of Business.

When Salma Said experienced persistent fatigue and weight loss in her village in Morogoro, Tanzania, she hesitated to seek help, fearing the cost and time required to get care. Her livelihood dwindled as she became unable to work. I only met Salma on admission to the hospital, confused and unable to walk. Her diagnosis was a stroke that was secondary to Type Two diabetes, a condition that can be simple to manage and prevent.  

Africa currently has the world’s highest mortality rates due to undiagnosed diabetes, reports the World Health Organisation (WHO). The stark fact is that if Salma had had better access to healthcare advice, much of her suffering – both physical and mental – could have been avoided.  

As a doctor working in Africa, it was the plight of Salma and countless other patients like her that drove me to team up with like-minded professionals to take action. The state of healthcare on our continent is complex and multi-layered, with inefficiency, poor administration and low government spend being major contributors to poor healthcare outcomes. It is estimated that less than half of the continent’s people have access to the care they need.

Tech driven solutions

Our solution has been to harness the power of technology to ensure that more people can get the medical help they need, efficiently and cost effectively via a simple app they can download onto their phones. As soon as they have registered, users can chat with a doctor, get a referral, lab investigation order, or even a prescription. The services cost around $3 per session, which is about half of what it costs at private hospitals. 

And we are far from alone. Across the continent, healthtech is on the rise. Boosted in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, increased internet penetration, and cellphone use, innovators are stepping up to transform health product distribution, with new models serving consumers directly, easing product supply, and offering product data services. For example, Dawa Mkononi, which was launched in Tanzania in 2022 after founder and CEO Joseph Paul realised a poor distribution of pharmaceutical supplies to the growing Tanzanian population, leverages technology to manage inventories, orders, and timely delivery to more than 300 pharmacies, and is looking at expanding the service to other regions in Africa. Hello Doctor in South Africa and ChanjoPlus and M-Tiba in Kenya, as well as GoMedical in Benin and mTrac in Uganda all fulfil a somewhat similar niche. 

As technology advances, so too can these solutions. While many have voiced concerns about the role of rapidly advancing technology – most notably generative AI – in shaping the future of humanity for the better, there is increasing evidence that it can play a vital role in the healthcare sector. Research presented at the American Diabetes Association conference in San Diego in June 2023 showed how telemedicine could help save lives for patients with diabetes, improving not only diabetes care but also decreased the financial burden caused by these complications, which include serious medical conditions like strokes, heart attack, ulcers and amputations. In another example, researchers in the US developed a new AI model capable of evaluating electrocardiogram (ECG) results and identifying signs of occlusion myocardial infarction faster than other modern techniques.   

Of course, this is not to say that technology is an unalloyed good. There are many issues including the privacy concerns that come from gathering sensitive personal data on people that must be properly addressed and understood if we want to ensure that the technology contributes to driving health equity.   

No silver bullet

It is also important to acknowledge that technology on its own is not a silver bullet. As Katusha de Villiers and Gillian Moodley from the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship based at the UCT Graduate School of Business point out, while ingenious solutions are making a huge impact, on their own they won’t be enough to build a more equitable health system in Africa.  

To build an inclusive health system the continent needs to address structural inequalities – political, social and economic – and this will require that private and public partners alike embrace radical collaboration to support inclusive innovation. “Health equity is everyone’s business,” they write. “Every actor in the ecosystem needs to do what they can to support the innovation and resilience of social entrepreneurs and innovators at ground level and they need to work together to go further.”

 There is also much that we need to do to dismantle the barriers to innovation in healthcare from addressing regulatory complexities and changing organizational cultures to aligning stakeholder interests to unleash more innovation in the sector.  

But such change takes time. And while serious interventions and systems change need to happen to drive healthcare improvements across the continent, many Africans can’t wait for the change. People are sick and dying now; they need help. The great advantage of technology-driven innovation and AI is that it is able to offer us ground-breaking solutions to a crisis – right now – building a healthcare system that puts the patient at the centre as we seek to build a better system overall.

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  • Health-e News

    Health-e News is South Africa's dedicated health news service and home to OurHealth citizen journalism. Follow us on Twitter @HealtheNews

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