AI for Good blog

The power of technology to achieve universal health coverage


Universal Health Coverage Day, commemorated last week, has highlighted the urgent need to provide affordable and high-quality healthcare for all.

Much progress has recently been achieved in global health thanks to the expanded delivery of lifesaving interventions like bednets and vaccines.

But at least half of the world’s population still do not have full coverage of essential health services, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). UNICEF and WHO estimates show that every day, 830 mothers and 16,000 children in low-resource settings die of preventable and treatable diseases, because they could not access the healthcare they needed.

New information and communication technologies (ICTs) like cloud computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Big Data, hold great promise to leapfrog development challenges. Newly released figures from the Berg Insight market research firm indicate that these technologies are gaining market acceptance in the health sector as the number of remotely monitored patients worldwide grew 41% to reach 16.5 million in 2017, and is expected to reach 83.4 million by 2023.

ITU and the World Health Organization (WHO) are working together to support countries to harness the power of new technologies to deliver high-quality healthcare to everyone, everywhere.

Here are a just few examples of ITU’s and WHO’s joint work.

Digital Health for Africa 

In 2017, ITU and WHO launched the “Digital Health for Africa” partnership to scale up the use of digital technologies to strengthen the delivery of public health-care services in Africa.

This year, ITU and WHO provided capacity development for 12 African countries to develop and implement their e-health strategies.

READ MORE: ITU’s work on smart villages

Once implemented, these e-health strategies will vastly improve the quality, safety, and efficiency of health services. Indeed, the use of ICTs will give health workers increased access to information, clinical evidence, and support tools. Point-of-care diagnostics, cloud-based platforms, and AI will facilitate remote diagnosis and treatment of patients in hard-to-reach areas. Mobile services will help health-care workers remind patients to engage in healthy behaviours, or take their medicine. ICTs will also help to prevent commodity stock-outs.

As the United Nations specialized agency for ICTs, ITU is specifically focused on helping countries build the supporting overarching digital architecture to bring e-health to scale. This includes the development of digital identification systems, so that people can receive the health services they need, as well as other vital public services.

Be Healthy, Be Mobile

WHO estimates that deaths by noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) will increase from 38 million in 2012 to 52 million by 2030, and over 80% of NCD deaths happen in developing countries.

Be He@lthy, Be Mobile, a collaboration between ITU and WHO founded in 2013, helps governments introduce health services for NCDs by using mobile phones to deliver information to people at risk.

RELATED: Using mobile phones to deliver mHealth services to millions

They also aim to develop best practices for mHealth at scale in 9 countries, as until recently, mHealth programs were not designed for sustainability or scale.

By 2017, the initiative, currently working in 10 countries — Burkina-Faso, Costa Rica, Egypt, India, Norway, Philippines, Senegal, Tunisia, United Kingdom, and Zambia, had reached millions of users to help them manage diabetes, stop smoking or screen cancer.

Focus group for AI and health

AI has great potential to improve the quality of remote healthcare.

Indeed, patient information sent to the cloud can be evaluated by experts with the assistance of AI-supported algorithms, enhancing the accuracy of the diagnosis.

But with AI’s many limitations, including bias and a lack of transparency, how can we build trust in AI algorithms to use them on a wide scale?

To address this need, the ITU-WHO Focus Group on ‘AI for Health’ (FG-AI4H) is working towards a framework to assess the performance of ‘AI for Health’ algorithms.

Thomas Weigand, Chair of the ITU-WHO Focus Group on AI for Health, explained why AI algorithms for health are not yet usable on a global scale.

RELATED: Artificial Intelligence for Health: ITU and WHO accept 8 new use cases 

“We have been seeing limited projects where you have a given data set and you develop your algorithm for it and then you would report on what comes out,” he said on the sidelines of a recent ITU-WHO Workshop on Artificial Intelligence for Health. “The problem with that is: How does this generalize to worldwide data that are coming in with this algorithm? We don’t know. And how does a regulator or somebody like WHO make a recommendation on a particular algorithm, when they don’t know how well it performs in a general sense?”

He described how the work of the Focus Group on AI for Health will help to address this problem.

“We [The Focus Group] will develop medical and technical requirements to solve a particular health problem using AI and digitized data,” he said.” We will then conduct an evaluation of these methods to create a report that tells you how well these are performing under the test circumstances. So this way, with the documentation of the performance of this AI we will be able to come up with a means to understand how well these are performing, and those practicing in the field can rely on this documentation and see how well these things are working.”

The Focus Group is now working on a framework to benchmark the performance of AI for Health algorithms based on eight new use cases addressing health issues spanning from breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease to autism, vision loss, skin lesions, and venomous snakebites.

Learn more about the potential of AI to improve health in ITU interviews with key Focus Group participants.

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