The COVID Boost to AI in Global Health

October 14, 2020
Julian Upton

Volume 40, Issue 10

Report sets out self-assessment measures for low- and middle-income countries in their adoption of new health technologies.

A new report—led by the Novartis Foundation and Microsoft and published by the Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital and AI in Health—states that, just as low- and middle-income countries have adopted technologies such as e-banking, e-commerce, and blockchain faster and more comprehensively than high-income countries, their adoption of health technologies will follow the same trend—but accelerated by COVID-19.

To bring their capabilities to the next level for health systems and patients, however, countries need to “foster a robust enabling environment for needs-driven AI.” Reimagining Global Health through Artificial Intelligence identifies six “self-assessment” areas that countries should focus on to achieve “AI maturity:”

  1. People & workforce: Prioritizing AI and data science in their national health education curricula.
  2. Data & technology: Prioritizing robust technology architecture, connectivity, access to quality, data privacy, etc.
  3. Governance & regulatory: Establishing robust governance structures and regulations to ensure AI innovation targets national health priorities.
  4. Design & processes: Performing gap analyses for technical and user requirement specifications and collaborating broadly to ensure successful integration.
  5. Partnerships & stakeholders: Supporting effective, goal-oriented partnerships (e.g., multi-sectoral public-private partnerships, data collaboratives).
  6. Business models: Fostering a diverse set of funding mechanisms for long-term outlook for AI in health solutions.

Connectivity, collaboration

Speaking to Pharm Exec, Dr. Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation and co-chair of the Broadband Commission Working Group, said that while universal broadband connectivity will be needed before the sustainable development goals can be reached, “it is very feasible for any country to carry out the self-assessment of their readiness to deploy digital technology and AI in health.” The goal of the report, she adds “is about countries being able to ask themselves, ‘What are the elements we still need to invest in?’ or ‘In which areas are we already quite mature?’ We want every policymaker or decision-maker, whether insurer or health authority, to be able to assess themselves so that they can measure which of the six elements need progress.”

In all countries where it has a presence, the Novartis Foundation aims to sit down with governments and help with the AI self-assessments. “Obviously, we can’t do everything that will be necessary, but we can help bring the right partners around the table,” says Aerts. She points to Brazil, where the Novartis Foundation partners with the local health authorities to run a large urban population health initiative. Based on this partnership, “the government asked for our support in setting up an ‘AI nucleus,’” she explains. “São Paulo, for example, was a COVID hotspot and needed access to innovative solutions. So we partnered with the local government and the University Hospital and tailored an AI-driven (lung) image-based diagnosis for COVID, which was developed in China, to the Brazilian context, while also supporting a call for proposals for health tech innovation. This has been successful in identifying common patterns created by the disease and helping doctors prioritize who needs the most urgent treatment.”

COVID-19, of course, has been a major catalyst for driving the global uptake of new technologies. But it wasn’t a factor when Aerts and her colleagues began the report in October. Indeed, the report was delayed so that the authors could “integrate many of the COVID learnings” into it. The pandemic has brought an opportunity to think how we can do things differently, says Aerts.

With many countries ill-prepared to address COVID-19, in addition to the existing burden of infectious and chronic diseases, digital technology and AI “are essential enablers to re-engineer health systems from being reactive to proactive, predictive, and even preventive,” she explains. “As health systems build back after the pandemic, technological innovation has to be a core part of the agenda and become integral to every health system, as essential as hospital beds.”

Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at jupton@mjhlifesciences.com.

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