The COVID-19 crisis has provided a moment of clarity: being ready for a health crisis is a choice. It has also forced us into a new digital era, with major growth in digital health services. Ongoing pursuit of these innovations will lead us to a future that is healthier, safer and more equitable
In many ways, COVID-19 has provided a moment of clarity. The crisis has shown that worldwide, our health systems were not structured to respond to major crises and address patient needs. Being ready for a health crisis is a choice. This pandemic has been a wake-up call for policymakers to realise the instrumental role of data, digital technology and artificial intelligence in health. The crisis also highlights the critical need to make the right choices to re-engineer health systems from being reactive to proactive, predictive and even preventative.
Despite the challenge of confronting this pandemic, one irony is that it has forced us to sprint into a new digital era, packing a decade of change and innovation into just a few months. Forced distancing and reduced contact between patients and health providers has led to a major growth in telemedicine and web-based diagnostics. Millions more people have sought digital healthcare solutions who never considered them before. Almost overnight, we have seen global ambition emerge to extend the reach of doctors and health diagnostics through digital technology. For communities long constrained by limited access, COVID-19–era advances have bridged gaps quickly.
This is good news, but it comes at a cost. Already fragile health systems have borne a heavy burden from COVID-19, often exacerbating inequalities. The World Bank estimates that economic contractions in emerging markets and developing economies will push as many as 60 million people into extreme poverty, the first year-over-year increase since 1998. As the pandemic demonstrates, preventing the worst outcomes relies on collecting comprehensive and timely data and sharing it on broadened digital networks. It is now critical that government leaders make the right choices and invest both in data and technology and in the digital and data-science capabilities of their people and workforces.
The acceleration we now witness offers a tremendous opportunity for countries to integrate data and AI into their health systems. The latest Working Group on Health of the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, which I co-chair at the Novartis Foundation with Microsoft, has identified today’s top-use cases for AI in health. When implemented in health systems, they can support workers, policymakers and patients to make better decisions that lead to better, faster outcomes. By boosting our capabilities to deliver optimal health and care for all, AI can help respond to the most pressing global health challenges, including the global shortage of health workers, constant threats from new microbes and climate change, rapid urbanisation and increasing misinformation.
An ecosystem of data
To continue this paradigm shift, we must build an ecosystem of data rooted in widespread, fast and reliable broadband networks. These investments come with a high return. In all the ways the world was slow to respond to the initial threat of COVID-19, you can imagine how much better prepared we must be for the next pandemic – or even for existing health emergencies, such as the ever increasing tide of non-communicable diseases, already responsible for 40 million deaths per year. A country with a strong and integrated health network will be able to speed up testing, early detection and contact tracing in a pandemic, all while improving essential services for patient populations in need of chronic care. Machine learning can enable health centres to improve their triage capabilities, forecast needs in personal protective equipment and medicines, or target follow-up measures to the highest-risk patients.
Successful deployment of AI in health systems requires consideration of six core areas:
- The people and workforce it will support
- The data and technology that will power it
- The governance and regulatory environment that will keep the network and patients safe
- The design and processes that will maximise efficiency
- The partnerships and stakeholders that will bring diverse communities together
- The business models that will make these initiatives sustainable.
This is the framework we need to be thinking of as we integrate AI into our health systems. And more than anything, governments must make AI integration into their health systems a national priority. Throughout my career, I have seen how digital technology and AI can help extend patients lives and engage them in managing their own health. I have seen how human-centred design can be a powerful guiding principle to quickly and efficiently bring in larger communities that can benefit from AI-powered health and care. The most successful countries are the ones that find a way to maximise their investment, knowing their commitments today will pay dividends for decades.
Let this crisis be our call to action. Let it guide policymakers and stakeholder groups to define a national implementation roadmap to grow the capabilities and reach of AI in health. Let it empower political leaders to develop clear guidelines for how to safeguard sensitive user data that intersects with our private lives. And let it influence stakeholders to conduct research and oversight to ensure that this growth spurt has the widest reach possible. This is the time for bold moves toward the redesign of our society and our health systems for a future that is healthier, safer and more equitable across all borders.