[Digital Business Africa] – According to Dr Ann Aerts, director of the Novartis Foundation, many countries are ill-prepared to deal with a newly emerging disease such as COVID-19, in addition to the current burden of infectious diseases and the ever-growing tide of chronic diseases. She, therefore, believes that digital technology and AI are essential catalysts for rethinking health systems so that they move from reactivity to proactivity, then to prediction and even prevention. Her explanations in this Interview with Digital Business Africa.
Digital Business Africa: The Novartis Foundation has focused under your leadership on how artificial intelligence and data science can transform health and care around the world. How could it be possible for artificial intelligence and data science to transform health?
Dr Ann Aerts: We have strong evidence that AI can be a critical support to doctors and nurses, enabling them to provide better diagnosis, treatment and care for their patients. But there is resistance to fully embracing this potentially transformative technology.
Data science and machine learning can also be used to predict health trends at a population level – e.g. predicting outbreaks of COVID-19 in the current pandemic (see the example of UNICEF’s Magic Box on p.39 of the report). Particularly in Africa, where there is a great shortage of trained health care professionals, technology can allow much greater access to medical expertise (see the case of Babyl Rwanda on p.63 of the report).
Depending on the type of AI, optimization or even full automation of health operations is possible.
Digital Business Africa: What are the achievements of the Novartis Foundation to reach that goal?
Dr Ann Aerts: If we focus this question on this current report, this is the first time that lower- and lower-middle income countries have been offered a maturity roadmap to implement AI in health. The roadmap is a practical guide towards a clearly defined goal, in this case the realization of an environment that enables AI solutions in health to unleash their full transformative potential.
While the Foundation has worked on many smaller projects which deploy technology to support access to health, we have realised that we need to think bigger and persuade governments to play a core role in driving uptake of AI at scale. This report aims to help governments do this.
We bring together the ecosystem of data and AI innovators, policy-makers, researchers and tech investors in low- and lower-middle-income countries through DASH in Africa, a collaboration between the Harvard Global Health Institute, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, and the MIT Critical Data Group (see http://dashinafrica.org/). We are a catalyzer of collaborations allowing for AI innovations with proven potential for population health impact to scale, and we help government innovation teams in lower-income countries build on their digital and AI capabilities.
Digital Business Africa: What are your future ambitions for the Novartis Foundation?
Dr Ann Aerts: We are leveraging our learnings, tools and evidence from the urban health initiative Better Hearts Better Cities, to co-create a population health approach with selected low- and lower-middle income countries, enabled by data, digital and AI.
Helping countries to transform their health systems from being reactive to proactive, predictive and preventative can address some of their largest health challenges.
Digital Business Africa: What are your main ambitions for African countries in AI and health?
Dr Ann Aerts: Advancing digital and data-led approaches to improve the health of African populations through a rich offering, including An urban population health toolkit that will help policymakers and other stakeholders replicate any part of the Foundation’s programs that suit their health priorities; a business case that shows a cost-benefit analysis of the Foundation’s programs; a needs assessment tool that governments and other stakeholders can use to help guide their priority setting in health; a roadmap to optimize population health; Heart health programs that can be implemented in schools and workplaces, along with data that proves that these programs are effective; The framework for achieving AI maturity in health systems; AI tools and policy guidance to help policymakers and other stakeholders use data and AI to improve heart health in their communities.
Interviewed by Digital Business Africa