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World Health Day: Here’s how AI and digital health are shaping the future of healthcare


Shyam Bishen is head, Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, member of the executive committee, World Economic Forum.

Big data models, telemedicine, predictive medication, wearable sensors and a wealth of new platforms and apps could help us rethink how the world provides, accesses and manages health and healthcare.

  • AI automation and augmentation and a range of other smart technologies are revolutionising the provision of health and healthcare.
  • Solutions like telemedicine and remote tools and sensors – backed by big data – could reduce healthcare costs and equitably improve access, outcomes and efficiency, finds a new World Economic Forum report.
  • But more than a third of the global population lives without internet access, which remains a challenge for smart healthcare solutions.

A tide of health data and digital technologies – such as artificial intelligence (AI) and telemedicine – is sweeping away long-held preconceptions about global health and healthcare access and provision.

And with this year’s World Health Day (on 7 April) focused on “Health For All”, how exactly will these innovations change the future healthcare sector – and how can they create better access and benefit everyone?

These questions sit at the heart of the World Economic Forum’s Global Health and Healthcare Strategic Outlook report, which sets out a vision for global health and healthcare by 2035.

An AI-enabled healthcare future

Health-focused technologies have the vast growth potential to bring about positive change, including new treatments, improved patient outcomes, better and earlier diagnostics and prevention, earlier treatment and improvements in quality and efficiency of healthcare provision, the report says.

Innovation can also help bridge the healthcare funding gap by reducing overall healthcare spending and boosting efficiency, it notes. National Health Service (NHS) England says telemedicine – remote diagnosis and treatment of patients using telecommunications solutions – could reduce the burden of patient care by 25%, for example.

In the US, half of the population is affected by chronic diseases, which contribute to more than 85% of overall healthcare costs. This problem is global, however, with the World Health Organization estimating that non-communicable diseases take 41 million lives annually – 77% of which occur in low- and middle-income countries at a cost of more than $2-trillion per year.

To address these challenges, improvements in prevention, monitoring and consultation through digital and AI-enabled healthcare approaches could significantly increase healthcare access and reduce costs, the report states.

And the field is evolving rapidly with the recent arrival of generative AI platforms like ChatGPT and Med-PaLM. While the potential impacts of such tech on medicine are still being determined, digital innovation is ensuring an ever-growing toolbox of new solutions and opportunities.

Lack of internet access a barrier 

But technological innovation on its own cannot fully drive the change – underlying infrastructure and policies must also be addressed.

In 2020, a survey found the share of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa (30%) who had used the internet in the previous three months was less than a third of the figure for North America (91.5%), according to Our World in Data.

Currently, almost three billion people – more than a third of the planet’s population – have no connection to the internet. Together with the need for strong data sharing, security and confidentiality, greater internet access is a major enabler required to ensure equitable access to new digital healthcare innovations.

An action plan for digital healthcare

Digital technology’s role in improving global health and healthcare access and provision requires a comprehensive action plan covering the short, medium and long terms, says the report.

Immediate action is needed to incentivise investment that drives innovation in medicine and treatment development while optimising supply chains and healthcare delivery.

Looking further ahead, data use and applications must be harmonised across the global healthcare industry, making different healthcare systems and tools interoperable so they can “speak” to each other and utilise different datasets, the report says.

And in the longer term, the medical profession must work with policymakers to create a regulatory framework that fosters innovation in all parts of the global healthcare system.

Deploying digital health solutions at scale

Multi-sectoral partnerships, such as between digital solutions providers, policymakers and stakeholders such as the civil sector and philanthropy, can help rapidly deploy digital solutions at scale.

To provide just one example of the power of such partnerships, when the pandemic struck, both the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and the Ghana Health Service turned to the Sormas Foundation’s open-source, mobile e-health platform to manage the disease. Sormas was already being deployed throughout the two countries, but more than 400 districts activated a new module for the platform, which was rapidly developed to detect and control the virus, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Looking forward, big data models, telemedicine, predictive medication, wearable sensors and a wealth of new platforms and apps could help us rethink how the world provides, accesses and manages health and healthcare.

But a perfect storm of investments, innovation and policy is needed to increase global access to quality healthcare provision for people both with and without an internet connection. DM


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  • Dennis Bailey says:

    SA doesn’t do investments, innovation and policy on anything unless there’s profit for a politician – so I’m not holding my breath. Viva, ANC, VIVA!

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