Globally, 4 billion people lack access to basic health services, with 45% of countries reporting less than 1 physician per 1,000 people.  In contrast, 1 in 2 people in developing and emerging economies own a smartphone – a figure that’s growing far quicker than the number of healthcare professionals.
Such widespread internet access creates an opportunity for AI-powered digital health assistants which, when combined with a knowledge base of high quality medical information and advice, can be used to combat inequality and provide personalised care in places where this would otherwise be impossible.
Sub-Saharan Africa is a prime example of care inequality – it accounts for 13% of the world’s population but only has 2% of the world’s doctors. However, the number of smartphone connections in the region has doubled over the past two years to nearly 200 million, or around 20% of the population. This increase in smartphone adoption is creating a communications infrastructure for previously unconnected communities.
This means that AI-powered health assistants can now reach places that traditional healthcare services cannot, empowering community health workers and patients to make better and more informed decisions and proactively manage patient health even if no doctor is available.
However, getting these tools into the hands of users is just the first step. To be truly effective, they need to be customised and offered in local languages. At Ada, we are taking the first steps on this journey by partnering with Fondation Botnar to become the first medical app translated into Swahili, unlocking access for more than 100m native speakers in Sub-Saharan Africa. This project is part of Ada’s new Global Health Initiative, a series of partnerships with governments, NGOs and global health organisations to research, build and implement AI-led solutions to improve primary healthcare delivery globally.
The next step to tackle inequality is to raise awareness: getting apps into the hands of local community health workers who can spread the word, combined with direct marketing, in order to get the technology to people who need it the most.
On the ground expertise is vital since every region and country will have its own challenges and requirements. However there’s no doubt that AI health technology can significantly improve healthcare access for underserved populations, wherever they are. We know the need is there and that the technology exists – we now just need to put it into the hands of patients and doctors.
By Claire Novorol, PhD. Dr Novorol is a regular columnist in AIMed Magazine, which you can access here.
 World Bank Group and WHO 2017 UHC Global Monitoring Report
Dr. Claire Novorol, Chief Medical Officer, Ada Health
Claire is the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer for Ada Health, a personal health guide that uses AI and machine learning to help people to understand and manage their health. Before founding Ada, Claire worked as a Paediatrician in London before specialising in Clinical Genetics. She has degrees in Pathology and Medicine as well as a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Cambridge.