By Ifthakaar Shaik
The African healthcare sector confronts an urgent and critical challenge: a severe scarcity of skilled professionals, resulting in alarmingly low ratios of doctors and nurses to the population across several countries. The training of medical experts, particularly specialized professionals like pathologists and oncologists, is a lengthy process spanning several years. Moreover, establishing a strong educational foundation at the primary and secondary levels is vital to provide tertiary institutions with a steady stream of candidates possessing the essential aptitude, literacy, and numeracy skills required for pursuing a medical career.
Recent leaps in technology accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the expansion of telecommunications infrastructure, such as initiatives like Starlink, have helped bridge the geographical gap between communities in need of medical services. Telemedicine offers individuals with limited physical access to healthcare professionals the opportunity to benefit from their expertise. However, the capabilities of a video call remain limited, particularly in accurate diagnoses, as medical practitioners heavily rely on patient-provided information or, in better cases, guidance from colleagues with lesser expertise who are following remote instructions.
Adding to these challenges, Africa also grapples with a “healthcare brain drain,” as developed markets actively attract healthcare workers from Africa to address shortages in their own systems, further depleting the continent’s medical resources.
In this context, artificial intelligence [AI] emerges as a revolutionary force in the healthcare sector. Its precise application can literally make a life-or-death difference in underserved areas and significantly reduce healthcare costs in the most needy markets.
Establishing a Path to AI Adoption Prior to the Tipping Point
The potential of AI in healthcare is undeniable. However, this potential could be squandered if we do not bridge the gap between the digital realm and real-world implementation. Even the most innovative healthcare software becomes ineffective if it is not practically integrated into on-ground devices.
Our journey at VitruvianMD illustrates this challenge. While our primary focus is healthcare, AI serves as our fundamental tool. A significant driver behind our company’s establishment was addressing the skill shortage in pathology, a crucial yet understaffed field in Africa.
Our initial objective was malaria. In 2021, malaria claimed approximately 593,000 lives in Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for 96% of global malaria deaths. Initially, AI appeared to offer assistance in tackling this issue. However, as our company evolved, it became clear that we needed tangible means to bridge the gap between AI’s theoretical benefits and practical implementation. Through collaboration with experts, we merged AI with biomedical engineering, resulting in a universal-fit microscope camera. Enhanced with cutting-edge software, this camera delivers users detailed analyses of their samples.
By adopting this integrated approach and collaborating closely with the medical community, we managed to develop tools that addressed not only malaria but also other conditions benefiting from prompt pathology services. We are even progressing toward enabling non-pathologist medical professionals to accurately analyze samples. Furthermore, remote analysis of samples by pathologists could soon become a reality.
AI’s Potential to Fill Skill Gaps and Reduce Costs
This achievement is significant. Numerous issues can arise during sample transportation. Samples might get contaminated, be sent to the wrong location, or fail to arrive altogether. By providing on-site testers with enough information to either make a diagnosis or convey their findings to skilled personnel in a different location, we mitigate the inherent transportation risks in a region where the pathologist-patient ratio is significantly low. This doesn’t even account for the daily infrastructural challenges that patients across the continent face.
Eliminating such obstacles results in faster diagnoses and reduced expenses throughout the healthcare process. These benefits can directly contribute to enhancing patient care at the point of service. In critical cases, a delay in pathological diagnosis, for any reason, could determine whether a patient lives or dies.
Furthermore, by enabling non-pathologists to perform tasks within the field of pathology, the camera and its accompanying software help bridge a substantial skills gap. Currently, there is only one pathologist for every million people in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, this statistic is skewed, with the majority of these pathologists being located in South Africa.
The upcoming decades will witness the transformative influence of AI on healthcare. As we stand on the brink of this revolution, it is evident that the integration of AI into healthcare will shape its future, offering significant advantages for Africa and other developing nations.
In the next two to three decades, AI is poised to revolutionize healthcare in ways that we can only begin to comprehend. Currently, we are merely glimpsing the potential of AI in this sector. The intersection of the future of healthcare and AI integration will be formidable. Particularly, African nations and other developing regions have a unique opportunity to harness substantial benefits from these advancements.
Ifthakaar Shaik is the Co-founder of Vitruvian Medical Diagnostics