Is AI having a tangible impact on healthcare in SA?

Artificial intelligence (AI) offers the healthcare sector far more than just the promise of improvements. Medical professionals in SA are already utilising the technology in innovative ways.

Johannesburg, 05 Sep 2019
Read time 3min 30sec
Ronelle Naidoo, head of sales, Mint Group
Ronelle Naidoo, head of sales, Mint Group

When it comes to the issue of health in South Africa, particularly when it concerns matters of life and death, artificial intelligence (AI) is seen to offer enormous promise regarding improving outcomes. The technology’s ability to gain information, process it and deliver an output, all while recognising patterns in behaviour and creating its own logic, is what distinguishes it.

The reality, though, is that AI has already moved beyond the ‘promise’ stage, explains Ronelle Naidoo, head of sales at Mint Group. There are, in fact, already tangible examples of it in use within the healthcare sector.

Naidoo points to Dr Raymond Campbell, of Phulukisa Healthcare Solutions, as one example of the type of out-the-box thinking that, when applied to such technology, is beginning to revolutionise the sector. Dr Campbell has spearheaded a radical mobile clinic initiative that is disrupting the primary healthcare market by providing improved patient care at much more affordable costs.

“Healthcare is even more challenging in rural areas, as patients have to sometimes travel vast distances simply to access treatment. Thanks to the cloud-enabled backpack he has developed, it is now possible to take a specialist out to these remote areas and test for deadly diseases like HIV, diabetes, heart disease and TB, to name a few,” she adds.

“The backpack can be carried by a single health worker, who can then screen patients at their homes. The same can be done for pregnant women, with the backpack used for all the required scans and tests, and – whereas in the past, results were returned only within about a week – thanks to the Microsoft Cloud, results are available within approximately 20 minutes.”

Naidoo adds that another good example of using AI to benefit healthcare is in the project undertaken by Dr Muthei Dombo, Deputy Director General for the Limpopo Department of Health. She has envisioned a ‘clinic in the cloud’, which will help to enable improved healthcare services for the citizens of Limpopo.

“Dr Dombo believes that as we live in the 21 century, it makes sense to utilise the most efficient and modern systems available and that, where technology can be of assistance, it should be used. Her vision is of a clinic in the cloud, where everything operates seamlessly, where facial recognition allows repeat visitors to be easily recognised, and where all data is securely stored in the cloud, meaning information follows the patient around, eliminating the need to repeatedly capture the same data.”

“This solution can also assist in reducing fraud, since it makes it easier for healthcare personnel to determine whether an individual is who they say they are and whether they are using the correct identity documents. Merely the ability to link a person to a file and a name, regardless of which clinic they visit, will significantly improve healthcare services for the citizens of Limpopo.”

Naidoo suggests some of the other ways in which AI can assist here is through developing predictive analytics solutions that help healthcare managers improve business operations, by helping to increase utilisation, decrease patient onboarding, reduce length of stay and optimise staffing levels.

“AI is so versatile that it can be used in many different scenarios, and the list of possibilities just keeps growing. We see AI being useful in areas as diverse as data analytics, electronic health records, dispensing of medication, ‘one face, one record’ and the recognition and diagnosis of diseases more speedily and effectively,” she says.

“While challenges do remain, including that of more general acceptance of a technology many still view as science fiction, AI is the ideal technology to ensure that the most important aspect of healthcare – the seamless patient journey – becomes reality in the near future,” she concludes.

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