IBM’s African Scientists Look to Tackle the Continent’s Pressing Healthcare Challenges with AI

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A majority of African countries still have fewer than one doctor for every one thousand people, and with the African population expected reach 1.6 billion by 2030, up from 1 billion in 2010, this is not just problematic, but catastrophic.

Just as alarming is that the World Health Organization projects that by 2020 the burden of disease for chronic conditions like cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, which all require specialist care, will far surpass that of infectious diseases. While this is a global trend, the impact on Africa will be worse because the continent has a much weaker healthcare system infrastructure, a short supply of equipment and medication, and a limited number of specialists for diagnosis and care.

The easy answer is to build more hospitals and train more doctors, but this isn’t enough. Africa needs to rise to this challenge and take a global leadership role in effectively merging healthcare and technology for care delivery — and the most obvious answer to achieve this is through Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Tacking the Challenge

A highly motivated contingent of such Africans working on healthcare research can be found at IBM’s Research lab in Johannesburg, South Africa. Led by Dr. David Moinina Sengeh, an MIT graduate and TED Fellow, he witnessed first hand the challenges which come from a shortage of doctors as a 10 year old growing up in Sierra Leone.

Sengeh adds, “On a typical day, my uncle, Dr. JC Boima, would perform close to a dozen procedures including Caesarean sections, limb amputations, and tumor removals, barely breaking for lunch and still at the end of the day, there were always more people waiting in line.”

Gciniwe Simphiwe Dlamini (left) and Waheeda Banu Saib, are bringing AI to healthcare in Africa.

Collaborating with Sengeh to change this are two fellow African researchers; Waheeda Banu Saib, a research software engineer with a degree in information technology from the University of Kwazulu Natal, who is pursuing her masters in data science and medical informatics from the University of Edinburgh and Gciniwe Simphiwe Dlamini, who graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in mathematical statistics.

“I joined IBM Research and the healthcare team because I want to make an impact on society,” said Simphiwe Dlamini. “I thought to myself, what better way to make an impact than by being part of the team that creates the technology and solutions that solve real societal problems. This is what inspires me.”

Saib, whose previous work in this field at IBM Research focused on using deep learning to extract clinically relevant information from pathology reports, has her own personal motivation.

“Cancer runs in my family, but at least we have access to healthcare and treatment. I want my research to help all Africans equally gain access to the healthcare they need, wherever they are, no matter how remotely and this is where AI and machine learning can help.”

The duo recently spent a month in the United States in Washington DC and at IBM’s famous Thomas J. Watson Research Lab in Yorktown Heights, New York, to meet with other healthcare scientists and to share insights on Africa’s specific healthcare challenges.

“We are all in fierce agreement that the solution lies in data and AI, but the implementation will vary from country to country,” said Saib.

One of the biggest challenges for Africa is data access. For example, in South Africa there is a five-year lag time in cancer statistics reporting, which prevents any meaningful prevention strategies. IBM’s Africa Lab is using cognitive algorithms to automate the inference of national cancer statistics in South Africa, which is expected to bring reporting to near real-time.

After their trip, Saib and Simphiwe Dlamini spent several weeks in Uganda meeting with more than 40 oncologists from a dozen countries to get feedback about how AI can help them meet more patients and provide better care.

“The one key take-away is that the doctors we have on the continent, are just as skilled and knowledgeable as anywhere else in the world, but they lack the equipment and resources to treat their patients as best as possible, said Simphiwe Dlamini. “This gave a new perspective to think about how the right AI tools can aid them in recommending treatments, for example.”

At this intersection of technology and healthcare, there is hope and hope can be powerful.

Sengeh adds, “Of course I am hopeful. If we can learn to embrace what AI being developed in Africa offers to the continent, our young and digitally connected population will be healthier, and wealthier, ready to transform our nations and ultimately, lead the rest of the world.”


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