In early June, at the invitation of the European Commission to Brussels (Belgium), I toured some fascinating AI and blockchain-based projects, which the Commission is funding. Across industrial sectors, from healthcare to energy, from construction to retail, engineers are creating new technologies with potentially disruptive implications for the current architectural order of the global economy. One of the technologies, an “AI doctor," shows great promise for the future of healthcare in Africa.
The solution is called CareAi: an AI-powered computing system anchored on blockchain that can diagnose infectious diseases, such as malaria, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis, within seconds. The platform is engineered to serve the invisible demographic of migrants, ethnic minorities, and those unregistered within traditional healthcare systems. By bringing AI and blockchain together, CareAi uses an anonymous distributed healthcare architecture to deliver health services to patients anonymously. This makes it possible for these invisible cohorts to get access to basic healthcare, and useful contextual information without compromising their identities, for fear of deportation. This is important, as without access to health services, these communities might pose health risks to the wider population.
CareAi has three components, which include the machine, a finger prick, and a lab-on-a-chip — a mature technology that was originally pioneered by George Whitesides, a chemistry Professor at Harvard University. To use it, a finger is pricked for a drop of blood, and the blood is deposited onto the chip, which is then inserted into the machine. The blood sample is anonymized and then analyzed by the CareAi AI-based health assistant that references a vast array of medical and diagnosing libraries, dispensing advice with a corresponding rating of confidence. CareAi’s diagnosis is based on a statistical analysis of all of that data: if I see “A” in your blood and medical journals say that means you have malaria, CareAi can say whether you have malaria up to a certain confidence level. Based on the blood sample, the device would diagnose a disease where one exists. The outcome is delivered on the machine screen with a printout, providing confidence of analysis and further actions which may include prescriptions at participating pharmacies, or escalation for medical attention with NGO doctors who supply anonymous medical treatments.
In light of recent scandal with Theranos, the startup that promised to revolutionize blood testing, it’s important to note here that CareAI is a European Commission project, which is funded by the E.U. What they’re doing is different: they’re not inventing any new technology, but rather, are using medical data and correlating that data with libraries of academic data/journals anonymously. All the anonymized data is securely stored on the blockchain, which supports smart contracts, making it possible to manage the rights, permission, and access to the health data. Participating organizations use Distributed App (an interface to blockchain contract) to access the anonymized data through smart contracts. Governments and enterprises buy tokens with which to use the app. These tokens are then used to pay the healthcare NGOs and support the servicing of the machines. In exchange, these paying entities have access to medical insights that can help them better inform and plan healthcare research, funding, and policy.
The creators are targeting refugee camps in Europe. Certainly, the applications would extend beyond refugee camps to some developing regions like Africa and India, where the ratio of citizens to doctors remains above global standards. CareAi stationed in markets, churches, mosques, and other public arenas could help citizens who live in places with limited healthcare facilities, especially if the recommendations are personalized with the patients’ medical records.
For Africa, specifically, we are experiencing a massive exodus of healthcare professionals to Western Europe and North America. Despite efforts by governments to stop this migration, the trajectory has not changed, because doctors and other health professionals typically earn more outside Africa. In Nigeria recently, one of the largest health sector unions was on strike for months. They were asking government for improved conditions of service. So, in a time when the population is booming, most African countries are losing their medical professionals, exacerbated by the ease with which foreign countries can hire them, and the near impossibility of African governments being able to match their foreign wages.
This is where technology offers promise, and products like CareAi could become catalytic when they begin to penetrate into villages and cities across the continent. If AI systems could handle some of the minor healthcare issues, the available healthcare professionals could focus on the most difficult issues. Indeed, technology could bring parity, removing the need of many healthcare professionals, and establish functioning service equilibrium in the healthcare sector in Africa.
Getting there will require data. Data would be the enabler to advance what I will call “Autonomous Care”. Besides diagnosing a villager with malaria, it’s important to know the medical history of the person, the drugs the individual is currently taking, and other factors which must be examined before a treatment strategy is deployed. Feeding that data to AI systems could make it possible for the AI to confidently prescribe medication, with the ability to connect the specific patient to the right pharmacy, with all processes handled digitally. But the cost of the service delivery must be affordable. This possibility is not realizable in Africa today because of a lack of data, a problem which is not just peculiar to the health sector in the continent.
Many African entrepreneurs are working on how to handle the data challenge in the healthcare sector. Medcera, which I founded, makes its software free to health institutions, from hospitals to labs, and from imaging centers to patients, to drive this redesign, which is going to be critical if AI systems are going to help improve lives. Data, with strong privacy and security, will be the catalyst to anchor this future where healthcare delivery would not be fully tethered to humans across African villages and cities.
The global consensus is that emerging technologies like AI and blockchain would transform markets and economies, possibly resulting in job losses or displacements. Yet, 500 years of history have shown that when technology penetrates into an economy, productivity typically improves, and that advancement usually results in higher human welfare and living standards. In most African sectors like agriculture, energy, and healthcare, we have not experienced the deeper impactful benefits of technology. That explains why more than 65% of Africa’s working population still works in farming, and why a lack of electricity remains prevalent in rural communities. So, the job losses may happen, but new technologies will facilitate superior net positives in Africa, on average, if they diffuse, through improved productivity.
Nevertheless, though AI and blockchain could unlock new vistas in Africa’s healthcare sector, the continent must still invest in the other critical aspects of a functioning healthcare sector. To combat the continuous loss of doctors and other healthcare professionals to foreign countries, medical schools should train more people. Healthcare professionals remain the heart of any good healthcare system, along with adequate electricity, clean water, and available drugs. No AI and blockchain system can leapfrog those elements. Yet, a complete review of the healthcare system may reveal that governments could employ a smaller number of healthcare professionals, if they supported them with emerging solutions like CareAi, and paid them more. Banks have proven that technologies like ATM and mobile money could help reduce staff headcounts, even while improving service quality and profitability. AI and blockchain promises the same to Africa’s healthcare at scale.
However, as that future emerges, African policymakers will need to architect modern privacy frameworks to ensure patients rights would be respected, and any potential abuses curtailed. The technology will only work to the extent that governments across African communities work proactively to ensure smart policies.
Ndubuisi Ekekwe is a founder of the non-profit African Institution of Technology and Chairman of Fasmicro Group with interests in technology, finance, and real estate.
This article originally appeared on HBR.org and is being brought to you by Medtronic.