Health and Healthcare Systems

In the future, no one should be excluded from healthcare

AI can supplement normal diagnosis methods.

AI can supplement normal diagnosis methods.

Jasper Westerink
Chief Executive , Philips Africa
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

Some people know from an early age exactly what they want to be when they grow up. There were children in my class at school who spoke confidently of being astronauts, firemen or lawyers. I wasn’t quite as certain – but I have always been fascinated by the idea of being able to make sick people better.

So when I started working in the health sector, it felt like a natural fit. That fascination with making people better and healthier has only grown over time as I’ve moved around the world and seen how the industry and the way we diagnose and treat people has shifted with the introduction of ever more advanced technologies.

Healthcare faces challenges in both developed and emerging markets; I have seen as many patients battling to access essential health services in London as I have in Diepsloot, one of Johannesburg’s biggest informal settlements. Failing to get that care elicits the same response: despair and hopelessness.

No one should have to fall – and stay – ill because they aren’t able to afford the kind of quality care that they deserve, or because the closest clinic or hospital is too far away. Rectifying this is, admittedly, a massive challenge, with at least half the world unable to access even the most essential of services. But it is one that I believe we can tackle and win – one day at a time – if we work together and play to our strengths to introduce ways to give people the health services they need.

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Cancer-spotting AIs

We are moving ever deeper into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an age of rapid technological advancement altering the very way we live, work – and access vital services like healthcare.

In this era, the most effective way to achieve the goal of providing people with the healthcare they need is by tapping into the power of technology. Innovations in areas like telehealth and AI are already making a difference. Every day, I read about and experience real stories of how these solutions are impacting and saving lives.

There is, for example, the story of how Google has developed an algorithm that uses AI to detect lung cancer – and has the ability to spot lung cancer a year before a human doctor. In a trial, it detected 5% more cancer cases and reduced false-positives by more than 11%. This shows the massive potential to speed up diagnosis of one of the world’s most common kind of cancers and help save more lives. It also has the potential to detect other types of cancer and diseases.

I’ve also just read about how researchers at a university in South Australia have developed the world’s first vaccine designed by AI. This is truly groundbreaking as it has the ability to drastically shorten the drug discovery and development process, as well as save money.

But perhaps most exciting for me is its potential to act as an important weapon in the fight against influenza – an annual global epidemic and killer. Flu is estimated to result in approximately 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and kill up to 650,000 people worldwide every single year. The new AI-developed vaccine has the power to prevent these unnecessary deaths.

At Philips, we have also been investing in our AI capabilities to help deliver better healthcare services. Just last year, we launched our HealthSuite Insights platform designed to help healthcare providers sift through and analyze large amounts of data to improve the experience, outcomes and care of patients.

Examples like these help explain the explosive growth of the AI market in healthcare, which is forecast to grow to $6.6 billion by 2021.

Bringing care to the patient

AI can also help drive care even when the doctor or health professional is off-site, through developments like virtual nursing or eICU (electronic intensive care unit), which have the power to reduce the amount of time patients spend in care facilities and decrease re-admissions – especially in emergency and ICU settings.

In the US alone, eICUs have helped healthcare professionals treat their patients regardless of whether they’re at the hospital or not, and has led to a 15 to 20% reduction in mortality rates and a 10 to 15% reduction in the amount of time spent in care. These results show the potential of the remote delivery of healthcare services globally.

One of the most effective ways of bringing care to the patient as and when they need it, no matter where they are, is telehealth. Our research has shown this is an area that is already enjoying some success in Africa, and which is going to continue to grow. A third of South African healthcare professionals, for example, reported that their patients’ experience has been positively impacted by telehealth.

This is true in the rest of Africa, too – we are seeing the impact of telehealth in Kenya, where the Philips Foundation is supporting a number of projects using our portable Lumify ultrasound technology at primary care level. This enables scans by midwives to be supported by remote experts through telehealth, thereby enhancing the availability of affordable services in the underserved communities and remote areas of Kenya.

One such project is called “Mimba Yangu”, in collaboration with the Aga Khan University: it is currently looking into the feasibility, impact and costs of quality antenatal care and examining if ultrasounds before 24 weeks of pregnancy, as recommended by the WHO, will result in better health outcomes for mothers and babies.

Kenya is a key market for telehealth in Africa: in April this year, Kenyan e-health start-up ConnectMed’s telehealth applications and management systems technology was acquired by a global firm. Since it started in 2017, ConnectMed has provided over 8,000 patients in Kenya and South Africa with telehealth services for acute and chronic primary health conditions, and also developed telehealth kiosks in 30 Kenyan pharmacies.

These projects are just a small cross-section of the work being done to expand access to healthcare using the latest tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but they clearly illustrate just how powerful technology like AI and telehealth can be in addressing healthcare challenges and providing people all over the world with the care that they are entitled to.

I fully believe that introducing solutions that use the latest technology will help us provide this care to greater numbers of people – and ultimately help shape more inclusive growth at a broader scale. This is going to take a collective effort from industry players like us; when we begin to work together more cohesively is when we will begin to see the true power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a power that drives sustainable change and growth, and benefits millions of people the world over.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsEmerging TechnologiesEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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