Founder at Codespire
October 18, 2023
By 2035, the World Health Organization (WHO) anticipates a shortage of nearly 12.9 million health care workers worldwide1. This shortage is further exacerbated in low- and middle- income countries (LMICs), where a lack of infrastructure, financial barriers, and unequal distribution of healthcare services also contribute to inaccessibility of care.
Yet despite Africa bearing 25% of the global burden of disease and being home to only 3% of the world’s health care workers2, the number of smartphone connections on the continent surpassed 700 million in 20203.
Technology holds a key to bridging this gap, with artificial intelligence (AI) for digital health at its forefront. There is an opportunity to leverage high smartphone usage in LMICs for digital health solutions, which have only been adopted widely by high-income countries.
Lately, AI has taken the news by storm with applications spanning across medicine, social media, art, and much more, but, what is AI? Put very simply, artificial intelligence is the simulation of human intelligence through computer science. It’s a type of computer technology that enables machines to perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, such as learning from experience, making decisions, and solving problems.
In the context of digital health, which refers to the integration of technology, data, and communication in healthcare, AI refers to the use of computer algorithms and technologies that enable computers to analyze medical data, make predictions, and assist healthcare professionals in diagnosing, treating, and managing diseases. AI in digital health can help interpret medical images, provide personalized treatment recommendations, monitor patient health, and enhance overall healthcare delivery by automating processes and providing valuable insights.
In LMICs, healthcare accessibility is a pressing issue. Oftentimes, medical scans and seeking out care is too expensive for the majority of the population. This cost grows when healthcare services are distributed unequally, with clinics only being established in urban centers.
AI has the potential to reduce costs significantly. For example, basic health scans could be automated right from a smartphone. An AI chatbot could help determine signs and symptoms right from one’s home instead of risking financial burden and lengthy travel for a diagnosis. Furthermore, conditions such as AIDS/HIV or mental disorders are still heavily stigmatized in some regions, resulting in clinicians refusing to provide healthcare services. AI serves as an unbiased tool which can guide individuals along treatment guides and pinpointing alternative clinics.
AI and technology also enables underserved populations to regularly check-in on their health, whereas doctor visits would otherwise be scarce and reserved solely for emergencies. With constant efforts to make health wearables and devices less expensive combined with apps promoting tracking for menstrual cycles, heart rate, mental health, temperature and much more, LMIC populations could gain more control over their own health and make informed decisions.
Currently, there are a number of AI digital health projects being implemented in LMICs, spanning from health assessments to transportation infrastructure. Here are a few:
In addition to these initiatives, there are dozens more projects being implemented in AI and digital health for LMICs, as the need for accessible care meets the opportunity of using smartphones to their full potential.
The horizon of digital health in LMICs is looking positive with the promising potential of AI. This technology's capacity for personalized care stands as a beacon of hope. By identifying patterns from extensive datasets, AI has the power to introduce a new era of tailored patient care. This breakthrough means treatment plans can be finely tuned to individual needs, accounting for genetic dispositions, lifestyle preferences, and even environmental factors.
However, realizing AI's potential in LMICs requires careful navigation of certain factors. The foundations of technological infrastructure and digital literacy must be strengthened to extend the reach of AI-driven healthcare tools inclusively. Indeed, understanding local cultural contexts, beliefs, and practices is essential to ensure AI solutions align with local norms and are accepted by communities. Additionally, with AI's reliance on vast health data, robust measures are needed to safeguard patient privacy and ensure informed consent. In that context, thoughtful collaboration between governments, tech enterprises, and healthcare entities can drive the development of impactful AI applications aligned with specific contexts.
Beyond healthcare applications, AI has the potential to extend into healthy daily living in LMICs as well. Furthermore, this technology can be applied to strengthen public health strategies. By analyzing environmental data, predictive models can foresee disease outbreaks, enabling health agencies to prepare effectively.
The scope of impact for AI-driven digital health solutions in LMICs is large, and we are already seeing promising applications being deployed around the world. Madiro is continuously working on scaling innovation, including those in AI, in global health to ensure a future where quality healthcare and a productive life are accessible to all. We are firm believers that technology can catalyze our journey towards creating a health-equitable future. Connect with us to explore how we can pilot and scale innovation, empower communities, and leverage technology for more sustainable and inclusive healthcare.
1 Global Health Workforce Alliance and World Health Organization. A universal truth: no health without a workforce. 2013. Available: https://www.who.int/workforcealliance/knowledge/resources/GHWA-a_universal_truth_report.pdf?ua=1.
2 Crisp LN. Global health capacity and workforce development: turning the world upside down. Infect Dis Clin. 2011;25(2):359–67.
3 Rice-Oxley M, Flood Z. Can the internet reboot Africa. The Guardian. Jul 25, 2016. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/25/can-the-theinternet-reboot-africa.
5 Dau, H., Vidler, M., AboMoslim, M., Mutamba, B., Nesbitt, Z., Deodatha, J., Byiringiro, S. D., Niyotwiringiye, C., Mithani, N., Nair, V., Smith, L., Rulisa, S., & Ogilvie, G. (2023). The barriers to cervical cancer screening for urban and rural populations in Rwanda. BMC Global and Public Health. https://doi.org/10.1186/s44263-023-00005-6
About the author
After interning at a healthtech startup in San Francisco and having calls with low-income families struggling to access care, Harsehaj has since been determined to bridge healthcare accessibility gaps through technological innovation and spreading awareness via content creation.
She is currently building AI solutions for improving accuracy of depression diagnostics, and is the founder of Codespire, a non-profit delivering technological education to underprivileged youth all around the world. She's also currently taking a year to explore the world before she double majors in computer science and neuroscience at The University of North Carolina as a Morehead-Cain Scholar.
As a bright-eyed tinkerer passionate about socially-driven innovation, Harsehaj hopes to continue building projects to help millions, even billions, of people.
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