COVID-19 has caused widespread human and economic devastation over the past almost two years, with health systems bearing the brunt of the pandemic. From a technology point of view, it has forced much of the globe into the fourth industrial revolution and a new digital reality. It has also been a catalyst for fast tracking digitization in health that would otherwise have taken a decade or more to achieve.
AI and machine learning algorithms have been used during the pandemic, with the use of diverse applications, such as epidemiological tracking of the disease’s spread (facilitated by ubiquitous smartphone usage); the examination of lung scans for traces of COVID-induced pneumonia; and the search for molecules capable of treating COVID.
Big data has been instrumental in tracing and managing the pandemic’s initial spread, as well as in devising appropriate vaccination strategies. A Canada-based company, BlueDot, pioneered an AI-driven pandemic warning system, and was the first institution to publish a paper predicting the COVID pandemic’s global spread.
Doctor, author and health informatics expert Dr Raphael Akangbe, who will address delegates at Africa Health Congress in October on the topic “Telemedicine opportunities and challenges in Africa: policy and regulatory perspective”, says that new and existing technologies introduced within healthcare systems during the COVID pandemic include biometrics, and telemedicine.
Akangbe describes Informatics, a new field that sits at the intersection of AI, big data, and healthcare, as a “vital tool for advancing UHC within Africa’s public healthcare systems.”
But for health informatics to be used effectively, hardware and software systems must be in place, and the capacity of healthcare workers must be built on the protocols and processes involved. “There are a lot of data-inputs needed for a sound healthcare informatics system, and the data-collection needs to be thorough and reliable,” he says.
With lockdown restrictions around the globe enforcing social distancing, telemedicine (or remote-access healthcare) rose in prominence almost overnight in some countries.
The potential of telemedicine to bring quality healthcare, via satellite or cellular communication, to hard-to-reach remote locations is a promising prospect in rural Africa, where access to formal healthcare services may be limited or even non-existent.
Furthermore, remote consultations with scarce specialists (who tend to be based within urban centers and academic institutions) could bring better quality care to more people, regardless of geographical distance, and in many cases could eliminate the need for costly long-distance travel in order to access facilities.
Other technologies which were already seeing limited use, such as AI applications for healthcare, and IoT health devices have become more prevalent over the past two years. The recently launched Apple Watch Series 4, for example, contains electrodes which enable users to take an ECG directly from their wrists.
Dr Akangbe adds that in terms of governments’ role in facilitating the digitization of health on the continent, a full commitment to equitably distributing the resources and infrastructures that digitization requires, with special attention given to the most isolated rural areas is of utmost importance.
“Lagos sits at the forefront of digital health in Africa and the Nigerian government has already begun to legislatively promote the use of health technology,” he says.
Akangbe believes that Investment into internet infrastructure with sufficient bandwidth is crucial for getting the population connected, as is investment into stable electricity supply, including solar projects where state utility supply is unreliable.
“Even the most sophisticated telemedicine systems won’t help where there is no internet and electricity”, he cautions.
“COVID has opened our eyes to the need for digital healthcare. For now, we’d like to see African governments laying the foundations by facilitating access to enabling devices like phones and computers, as well as the infrastructure for reliable connectivity and stable electricity supply,” he says.