Health and Healthcare Systems

Why AI has a greater healthcare impact in emerging markets

AI offers scalable and affordable healthcare solutions in emerging countries.

AI offers scalable and affordable healthcare solutions in emerging countries. Image: AstraZeneca

Nick Passey
Head of Commercial IT & Digital, AstraZeneca
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • AI is vital to overcoming healthcare disparities between low- and middle-income countries.
  • Where healthcare resources are scarce in emerging countries, AI offers scalable and affordable solutions.
  • Harnessing technology will help assure healthcare as a fundamental human right.

The intersection of AI and healthcare holds immense promise, particularly in addressing some of the most complex challenges and barriers to healthcare access faced by emerging markets. Fast becoming a transformative force reshaping how we diagnose and treat diseases, AI is playing a pivotal role in overcoming healthcare disparities in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). It has the potential to revolutionize patient outcomes and bring equitable care to millions of people who currently face significant barriers to healthcare.

In emerging markets, where healthcare resources are often scarce and inaccessible, AI offers scalable and, crucially, affordable solutions. By leveraging digital innovations, AI transcends geographical boundaries and extends quality healthcare services to underserved populations, ensuring equitable access to medical expertise and resources, regardless of location or socio-economic status.

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AI also enables the analysis and interpretation of vast amounts of medical data, allowing for early disease detection and personalized treatment plans. This capability is especially critical in LMICs where healthcare systems grapple with the surge of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and, in some cases, the burden of an ageing population. By identifying diseases in their nascent stages, AI empowers healthcare professionals to intervene proactively, ultimately leading to improved long-term patient outcomes while reducing the load on healthcare systems.

Igniting innovation to improve patient outcomes

Africa faces a multitude of healthcare challenges that are complex and multifaceted, shaped by a combination of socio-economic, environmental and political factors. Despite notable progress in certain areas, such as reducing infectious diseases and improving life expectancy, the continent continues to struggle with persistent health disparities and burdens. AI has the potential to transform patient outcomes through cost-effective and adaptable solutions, two critical aspects for emerging markets.

Across the continent, great strides are being taken to leverage technology for the benefit of patients. Last year, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) committed to investing in technology to strengthen the ability to respond to public health emergencies and to build resilient health systems. To achieve these goals, the CDC has developed a number of key initiatives, with a focus on digitally connecting all African health facilities, promoting homegrown health tech innovation, and strengthening disease surveillance.

Crucially, innovations such as telemedicine, mobile health applications, and digital health records are overcoming traditional barriers to healthcare, particularly in remote and underserved areas where rural communities have previously struggled with access. Telemedicine platforms connect patients with healthcare professionals remotely, providing consultations, diagnoses and even treatment recommendations through smartphones or computers. Mobile health applications offer valuable resources for health education, medication management, and monitoring of chronic conditions, while digital health records streamline patient information management. These advancements not only enhance accessibility to healthcare services, but also empower individuals to take control of their health.

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At AstraZeneca, we are working to provide a platform to support this and drive critical health innovation through the A.Catalyst Network (A.CN) Africa Hub, which unites entrepreneurs, start-ups, academics, governments, healthcare institutions and other industries under one common goal: to ignite innovation that will secure better, equitable health outcomes for patients.

Screening with AI

In Africa, breast cancer mortality-to-incidence ratios remain significantly higher compared to other regions, largely due to challenges such as inadequate infrastructure in rural areas. A company called Medsol AI Solutions in South Africa is working to address this challenge with the development of a cutting-edge, Wi-Fi-enabled ultrasound probe designed for rapid breast cancer detection. This innovative technology leverages AI algorithms to analyze medical imaging data swiftly, enabling healthcare professionals to identify and diagnose breast cancer at its earliest stages. The accompanying rapid diagnosis app facilitates quicker therapeutic interventions, while the portable probe enables the extension of screening services to regions with limited healthcare infrastructure.

There has been similar success in Kenya in reducing mortality rates with AI remote cardiac diagnosis, which means patients can be screened and diagnosed regardless of location.

By enabling access to screening opportunities and empowering healthcare ecosystems in underserved communities, we can reduce the strain on existing healthcare resources by ensuring only high-risk patients are transferred to the tertiary hospitals while driving equitable care for all. These are the ambitions that AstraZeneca’s flagship health equity programmes, Cancer Care Africa and Healthy Heart Africa, are committed to supporting.

We also know that the health of our planet and the health of people are inextricably linked. Africa is suffering disproportionately from the impact of climate change, which is harming food and water security and has a direct impact on human health. Healthcare is a significant contributor to carbon emissions globally, particularly in settings where a disease is significantly progressed. If we can detect and treat diseases earlier through digital solutions, we can also reduce the adverse effects on the environment.

An augmented effect in emerging markets

While AI's impact on healthcare is global, its significance is amplified in emerging markets. Here, the convergence of AI and digital innovation is transforming healthcare delivery. By harnessing AI's potential, emerging markets can alleviate the strain on overburdened healthcare systems and foster sustainable health outcomes for their populations. Moreover, AI-driven initiatives empower local healthcare providers, equipping them with the tools and insights needed to deliver quality care efficiently.

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The transformative potential of technology in healthcare is undeniable, particularly in addressing the pressing challenges faced by emerging markets. By leveraging these capabilities, we can build a future where quality healthcare is not a privilege but a fundamental human right. As we navigate the complexities of global healthcare, we need to embrace healthcare tech and AI as catalysts for positive change, propelling us towards a healthier, more sustainable and more equitable world.

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