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Sep 25, 2019

Technology and the democratization of healthcare

Estimated reading time: 7-9 minutes

Technology possesses the power to remove the obstacles which prevent access to healthcare for all. We know that emerging economies, such as those in Africa, typically bear a double burden - a lack of access to healthcare due to gaps in the availability of services and people struggling to afford even the most basic healthcare. 


Innovation in healthcare breaks down the walls of cost, time and location.  Embracing technology, and how it democratizes access, will make universal health coverage a reality; one that we will be able to realize in the future. 


We are currently moving ever deeper into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an age of rapid technological advancement altering the very way we live, work – and access vital services like healthcare. In this era, the most effective way to achieve the goal of providing people with the healthcare they need is by tapping into the power of technology.  The challenge of having so many people unable to afford basic access to healthcare - a fundamental human right - is increasingly being offset by the introduction of solutions borne from rapid technological advancement.  


Innovations in areas like telehealth and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are already making a difference and are saving lives of people who otherwise simply would not have access to quality healthcare. 

Innovations in areas like telehealth and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are already making a difference and are saving lives of people who otherwise simply would not have access to quality healthcare.

Jasper Westerink

Market Leader Philips Africa

Improving access to care through mobile technology:

Telehealth – also known as telemedicine – is the remote diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of patients using telecommunications and digital technology such as mobile devices and computers. 


Telehealth effectively helps lower the costs of delivering healthcare services by enabling healthcare professionals to diagnose and treat patients without needing to see them face-to-face. 

It also has the potential to overcome shortages of healthcare professionals by increasing access to specialists in bigger and more well-equipped medical centers, hospitals and academic institutions. This has far-reaching consequences in locations where patients are often compelled to walk or commute long distances and catch multiple forms of transport before they even get the chance to join a long queue to see a medical professional. 


Telehealth solutions that have been implemented specifically to improve access and provide healthcare services to the poor and those living in remote, rural areas. Kenya launched its national telemedicine initiative for the poor and marginalized in rural areas in 2015.


The initiative helps patients and healthcare providers in rural areas to use video conferencing to interact with experts at the country’s biggest referral facility - Kenyatta National Hospital, which helps with diagnosis, treatment, training and research.   

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In South Africa, the Impilo Initiative also helps provide access to care in rural areas, but focuses specifically on women and girls and providing pre- and post-natal care. Established in 2018, it equips community health workers with smartphones and tablets to facilitate virtual doctor’s appointments. 


Philips, too, has numerous telehealth solutions that we have implemented that we can see are making a real difference in underserved communities across East Africa. The Philips Foundation, supports projects that explore the use of mobile ultrasound technology at primary care level to enhance availability of affordable services in the underserved communities and remote areas of Kenya.


We are involved in one such project called “Mimba Yangu”, in collaboration with the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health of the Aga Khan University, which is currently looking into the feasibility, impact and costs of quality antenatal care and examining if ultrasounds before 24 weeks of pregnancy, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), will result in better health outcomes for mothers and babies. This project looks, in particular, at our Lumify and Philips Mobile Obstetrics Monitoring (MOM) solutions.  


The Lumify uses a smartphone-based mobile app and portable ultrasound to help both healthcare professionals and mothers. Medical professionals can deliver care wherever it is needed even in the most remote locations, while mothers are able to see clear and high-quality images of their unborn babies. This means that patients can be treated at the point-of-care with a greater chance of success because of faster and more accurate diagnosis and treatment. 


The Philips Mobile Obstetrics Monitoring (MOM) solution, meanwhile, is a scalable telehealth platform that allows midwives to remotely monitor patients from hospitals or home through data collected from physical examinations and then shared to the centralized MOM server. This data can then be used to determine if a pregnancy is high-risk so that immediate care can be provided.

AI and learning to do health better:

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are also helping to break down barriers to Universal Health Coverage (UHC). 


Google, for example, has developed an algorithm that uses AI to detect lung cancer – and has the ability to spot lung cancer a year before a human doctor. In a trial, it detected five percent more cancer cases and reduced false-positives by more than 11 percent, demonstrating the potential to speed up diagnosis of the world’s most common kind of cancer, and help save more lives. It also has the potential to detect other types of cancer and diseases.


Researchers at a university in South Australia have developed the world’s first vaccine designed by AI. The common flu is estimated to result in approximately three to five million cases of severe illness, and kill up to 650,000 people worldwide every single year. The new AI-developed vaccine has the power to prevent these unnecessary deaths.

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At Philips, we have also been investing in our AI capabilities to help deliver better healthcare services. Last year, we launched our HealthSuite Insights platform designed to help healthcare providers sift through and analyze large amounts of data to improve the experience, outcomes and care of patients. 


AI can also help drive care even when the doctor or health professional is off-site, through developments like virtual nursing or eICU, which have the power to reduce the amount of time patients spend in care facilities and decrease re-admissions – especially in emergency and ICU settings. 


In the US alone, eICU’s has helped healthcare professionals treat their patients regardless of whether they’re at the hospital or not, and has led to a 15 to 20 percent reduction in mortality rates and a 10 to 15 percent reduction in the amount of time spent in care. These results show the potential of the remote delivery of healthcare services globally.


The advances we are seeing in telehealth and AI demonstrate just how important technology has become in enabling the delivery of quality healthcare to all. Universal health coverage will only be realized if we continue to drive innovation in the healthcare space.  I fully believe that introducing solutions that use the latest technology will help us provide care to greater numbers of people – and ultimately help shape more inclusive growth at a broader scale.

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Jasper Westerink

Jasper Westerink

Market Leader Philips Africa

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