How AI can improve service delivery in Pakistan’s healthcare sector

In Pakistan, almost 95pc households have at least one mobile phone. AI can use this tool to detect diseases such as skin or oral cancer through camera images.
Published March 24, 2023

In recent years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become an integral part of our lives. We take it for granted without realising we use it every day. Imagine visiting a place before Google Maps was introduced. Or the hassle of sifting through your emails without a spam filter.

The father of modern computer science, Alan Turing said, “Artificial Intelligence refers to tasks being performed by machines such that it computes anything that is computable and gives results which can deceive us into believing it was a humans’ output”.

If you have heard about self-driving cars or received a predictive text suggestion on your phone, you are already familiar with the advancements of AI technology. From face detection, YouTube suggestions, Facebook relevant feeds to humanoid robots, prediction and diagnosis of diseases, robotic surgeries, AI has come a long way.

The possible benefits of AI are also creeping into the healthcare industry.

How can AI help medical practice?

In some parts of the world, AI is used to improve accuracy of diagnoses in medical imaging through computer-aided detection and segmentation, which can potentially be overlooked by the human eye. In Pakistan, almost 95 per cent households have at least one mobile phone. AI can use this tool to detect diseases such as skin or oral cancer through camera images.

One of the most time-consuming tasks healthcare professionals deal with is going through patients’ medical documents. AI enabled electronic health records is an effective solution to this problem. It can make automated retrieval of context-relevant patient data from stacks of medical documents through text recognition, reducing redundant diagnostic tests and operational expenditures. This will allow clinicians to give appropriate attention to the patient and improve patient-provider interaction.

AI’s competence is substantial in clinical decision support, patient engagement and continuous remote monitoring through setting up reminder messages for medicine intake, follow-ups with consultants, or suggesting diagnostic tests to clinicians.

Local advancements

Pakistan has great potential in AI. It developed AI technology to curb the spread of Covid-19 such as contact tracing apps to send automated texts to people if they were within a two-metre radius of a Covid positive patient. Students at Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute and DetectNow created an AI algorithm to screen for Covid-19 through voice recognition by sensing a patient’s dry cough.

In the medical industry, Dr Zahra Hoodbhoy, assistant professor, faculty of health sciences at Aga Khan University, is working on developing a machine learning model to identify high-risk pregnancies that may result in a poor outcome for the mother or baby in the first week of life. Dr Hoodbhoy says, “Pakistan has a dearth of trained care providers, but AI can empower front line care providers to act as a high-quality triage in community settings for timely care and management — this is how we can truly democratise technology”.

Internet of Things (IoT) devices are a growing technology in Pakistan. IoT refers to physical objects with sensors, processing ability, software that connect and exchange data with other devices and systems over the internet or other communications networks such as fitness trackers or voice controllers.

These sensors gather real-time data (high velocity) and provide enormous amounts of data (high volume), so, there is a need to simulate decision-making in real-time. Amalgamating AI with medical IoT would equip sensors to analyse data of patients across Pakistan, revolutionising personalised patient-care delivery.

Pakistan established the National Centre of Artificial Intelligence in 2018 with an aim to foster scientific research, innovation, redirection of knowledge to the local economy, and training in AI and affiliated fields. While it is heart-warming to witness start-ups like Motive (formerly KeepTruckin) working in applied and scientific research in AI and solving problems within Pakistan, this proportion is still quite low.

For this ratio to grow and expand, the government should bridge the gap between industry and academia by investing in programmes that cater to contextual issues and roadblocks in the effective implementation of AI. We need more freely available databases such as those used during the pandemic to enable innovators to work on more advanced and impactful tech-based solutions.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number D43TW011625. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health

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