If leveraged to effectively tackle challenges such as the rural-urban gap in specialist care across Nigeria, artificial intelligence (AI) can help reverse over $879 billion loss to poor health in Africa’s most populous country, experts say.
With approximately four medical doctors per population of 10,000, Nigeria is one of the lower-middle-income countries where the ratio of doctors to the overall population is the lowest in the world, according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Health professionals, especially in rural areas, often function on their own, without the help of specialists or pharmacists. They also have to provide a wide range of services, which reduces the quality of care.
However, AI systems can support physicians in diagnosing patients and choosing treatment plans, which can often reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics and sometimes even stand in for a human doctor if none is available, said Ingrid Katz, associate faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute in a new TIME report on ‘The Future of Medicine’.
He explained that AI is trained to make the best choices and has the capacity to oversee and manage the rapidly changing technology.
“Used effectively, AI has the potential to revolutionise global health and health care,” he said.
Poor quality health care in low and middle-income countries results in an estimated 8.4 million deaths per year and as much as $1.6 trillion in lost productivity.
The indirect cost of illness in Nigeria as of 2015 was estimated at $879 billion, more than double the country’s gross domestic product and accounting for about 36 percent of the $2.42 trillion total productivity loss across the WHO African region.
Approximately 50.9 percent of loss in lower-middle-income countries (LMIC) was borne by Nigeria which, in 2018, had a paltry health budget of N340 billion ($946m), equivalent to $5 per person.
Eric Topol, director and founder of Scripps, a research translational institute, believes AI will act as a partner, freeing doctors to concentrate more on the art of medicine that machines are not likely to master.
“So many things in medicine need context and the human touch. Nobody wants to get a diagnosis like cancer or serious heart disease through a Chabot,” he said.
Analysts expect Nigeria to build a warehouse of data to enjoy the effectiveness that the fusion of AI and healthcare can produce.
It will require investment in data infrastructure which some private health investors have already started making to expand access to care, they say.
Products such as HealthXP, a telemedicine solution aimed at empowering healthier lifestyles and reversing the loss of medical expertise through migration are now onboard to bridge the gaps in specialist care.
The mobile platform helps Nigerians access verified medical professionals across specialties, and with varying years of experience from across the world.
Nigerian doctors who have migrated abroad but still want to make their expertise useful locally can also leverage the platform for consulting with patients, raising Nigeria’s threshold skilled medical workforce indirectly.
Kayode Ogunleye, co-founder, HealthXP Limited, believes technologies such as AI holds a lot of promise for Nigeria’s healthcare when collaboration is established among health professionals across the board.