Focus Outlook

How AI Can Bridge Gaps in Healthcare Access in Developing Nations


Artificial intelligence (AI) is often discussed in terms of its impact on business, focusing on improving efficiency, reducing costs, and driving profitability. While these are all valid reasons for AI adoption, the true potential of AI lies in its power to serve society and tackle the pressing challenges of our world. This potential is what is truly exciting about AI—its ability to create a sustainable future for all. Particularly, in today’s interconnected world, access to healthcare is fundamental to individual and societal development. However, many communities, particularly those in remote or underserved areas, face significant barriers to accessing these vital services. AI can bridge this gap by enabling innovative solutions that overcome traditional limitations, thus supporting sustainable development.

Healthcare disparities pose a significant challenge in various regions across the globe, with Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) bearing among the higher levels of mortality. In SSA, the average life expectancy at birth is a mere 60 years, significantly lower compared to 76 in the United States, 82 in Europe, and 74 in Asia. Limited access to healthcare is a prominent contributing factor to low life expectancy in the region. However, an intriguing development is unfolding: the adoption of smartphones and other mobile technologies continues to rise in the region. The adoption of mobile technology presents an opportunity to leverage AI to make healthcare more accessible and subsequently improve population health outcomes. Mobile technology is the ideal gateway to healthcare for underserved populations, holding immense promise in bridging existing gaps.

Enhancing healthcare accessibility encompasses multiple dimensions beyond merely connecting individuals with doctors and clinicians. It also includes providing access to potentially life-saving information and treatments. By leveraging a combination of AI technologies, it becomes possible to facilitate assessments, diagnoses, treatment, and monitoring across a broad spectrum of physical, mental, and emotional ailments. The following elaborates three ways AI can achieve such goals and support sustainable development.

Generative AI

Generative AI has emerged as a powerful tool, exemplified by the breakthrough success of ChatGPT. The tool showcases the remarkable sophistication of Large Language Models (LLMs) and transformer-based models, specifically OpenAI’s Generative Pre-Trained Transformer (GPT). Using deep learning techniques, the model can generate text that mirrors human-written content with astonishing accuracy. The AI can draw upon many meticulously curated training data, including health records, medical databases, disease journals, image libraries, and more. Provided that the training data originates from reputable sources and is verifiably accurate, generative AI has the capability to disseminate vital information that can potentially be life-saving.

Conversational AI 

In the developed world, the abundance of voice/virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa and the prevalence of text and voice chatbots has ushered in an era of convenience. However, conversational AI holds immense potential in healthcare delivery in developing nations because of its ease of use. Conversational AI uses natural language processing and machine learning to allow machines to have human-level conversations. Furthermore, multilingual and multimodal translation models such as Seamless M4T can eliminate language or literacy barriers, making conversational AI accessible by anyone. By combining conversational and generative AI, any user can leverage speech or text on a mobile device to initiate a health session to get access to care.

Computer Vision 

Just as doctors use their expertise to assess patients visually, computer vision systems act as a virtual “doctor’s eye,” capable of objectively analyzing visual data to provide valuable health insights. This AI-powered “sight” adds a new dimension to healthcare in several ways. For starters, a smartphone’s built-in video camera is capable of measuring biomarkers such as blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and stress levels. Such a tool empowers individuals to self-monitor and offers health providers essential data points that could factor into their assessments. Additionally, computer vision can extract and analyze information from still photos, aiding detection of conditions with physical manifestations such as dermatological issues, ophthalmic abnormalities, and nutritional deficiencies.

Putting It All Together for Real-Life Context

To illustrate the transformative potential of AI in the developing world, consider the distressing reality that diarrhea remains a leading cause of death among children under five in Africa. Now, envision a scenario where a concerned parent in a remote village seeks guidance by simply turning to an app on a mobile device and sharing their child’s symptoms either by texting or speaking into a chat interface. Drawing on both conversational and generative AI, the system swiftly identifies diarrhea as a primary symptom. Moreover, because the app can engage in a dialogue with the parent, it asks follow-up questions to tease out any other symptoms and accurately assess the severity of the case.

For example, leveraging its vast training data, the AI may inquire if the child has any rashes to rule out other illnesses like typhoid fever. Upon confirmation from the parent, they may be prompted to take a picture of the rash and share it for computer vision analysis, enabling the AI to determine if the rash is indicative of typhoid fever or unrelated. Subsequently, the AI can deliver crucial information regarding the risks of dehydration, the impact of contaminated food and water, and actionable strategies for mitigation. In urgent situations, the AI can promptly guide the parent to seek immediate medical attention, providing directions to the nearest healthcare facility or even facilitating a real-time telehealth session with a qualified medical professional. These capabilities exemplify the immense potential of AI in delivering timely interventions that have the potential to save lives.

Creating a Sustainable World

Pursuing sustainable development has emerged as an increasingly crucial endeavor today. As we confront pressing global challenges, the convergence of AI and sustainability offers unparalleled prospects for progress. Every human on this planet has a right to health. Given proper application and implementation, AI technology can provide access to education, guidance, treatment, and self-care, resulting in better health outcomes. When individuals have good health, they are better equipped to contribute to the economy and society at large.

By Debarshi Chaudhury, Founder and CEO of Quantilus Innovation

Debarshi Chaudhury is the Founder and CEO of Quantilus Innovation, a software development and technology solutions firm focused on helping clients leverage AI, big data, and other emerging technologies to solve real-world challenges. Debarshi has more than 20 years of experience building software, systems, and processes with clients across multiple domains, including education, publishing, finance, retail, entertainment, and government. He holds an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and a B.Tech in Electronics and Communications Engineering from Delhi College of Engineering. Debarshi also is a member of YPO.


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