BY Fast Company Contributor 3 MINUTE READ

In 1924, Dutch physiologist Willem Einthoven received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for pioneering the electrocardiogram. This diagnostic tool for heart conditions could measure and record the heart’s electrical activity, enabling physicians to diagnose and monitor different cardiac conditions with far more accuracy than was previously possible.

This major game-changer in cardiology significantly improved the ability to detect and treat heart diseases, a major cause of mortality at the time. A hundred years later, another breakthrough in the healthcare industry emerged, this time with a meaningful benefit for the African continent.

Earlier this month, health government healthcare representatives, CEOs, and decision-makers within the medical industry from around the world assembled in Cairo, Egypt, for the third annual Africa Health Excon, a platform designed to ‘promote health technology and innovation, build capacities, encourage collaboration, and promote health trade in Africa’.

Included in this year’s programme at Africa’s largest health conference was the introduction of an AI health bot, embodying the first step in building a new public health order for Africa, and improving public participation and civic engagement within the continent’s healthcare sector.

The data-free bot, which will serve to provide digital healthcare assistance to 54 member states of the African Union (AU), learns and develops analysis based on the data it receives through powerfully

interactive conversations with ordinary users seeking to learn more about their health symptoms and conditions. This strategic tool will empower government disease control agencies and other healthcare bodies to track and trace any regional outbreak or infectious hotspots in real-time, revolutionising the way healthcare crises are responded to and significantly reshaping the future of healthcare services across the African continent.

This groundbreaking development will certainly improve access to technology across a continent that remains hamstrung by the digital divide. It aims to assist the private and public sectors with the modernisation of public processes by digitising public systems, leading to effortless and active participation by all who live on the continent. The AI health bot will also provide an effective antidote to the silo operations of various healthcare bodies across Africa, especially those that leave vital data fragmented.

While this technology presents a new age of public healthcare automation systems, it has the potential to create a new strategic direction of governance that is far more proactive and responsive to outbreaks and pandemics when fed information from its citizens. Centralised dashboards supplied by this data can also empower governments to make far better evidence-based decisions on resource allocation.

Nonetheless, this new strategic direction in healthcare monitoring must be used as an opportunity to review the way outbreak responses were handled before. While governments are typically seen as taking the lead in healthcare crises, they will still require collaborative and cooperative partnerships with the private sector to produce a whole-of-society response to minor or major health disasters.

If responses to these disasters are left solely in the hands of the public sector, it could take years for governments to build sufficient capacity, resources, and technical skills to develop a system that works efficiently – often due to the bureaucracy that slows down government decision-making and implementation.

Further to this, the rapid speed at which the world is experiencing the fifth industrial revolution, which characterises the harmonious collaboration and interaction between man and machine, is alarming.

What is more troubling is the pace at which Africa is falling behind compared to its global counterparts.

This underpins the need for public-private sector collaboration to guard against the unethical use of AI technological solutions, especially in the healthcare sector. These are conversations that leaders in both the private and public sectors will need to spearhead, to ensure automation technology and innovation are built to increase collaboration and creativity, especially in an inclusive manner.

This is a dialogue that must be followed by further deliberation on how these technologies interface with citizens across the African continent, without impairing the rights and dignity of others. While Africa’s strides in this arena of technology are promising and hopeful for the future, African leaders will need to be cautious of what global tech companies are doing to leverage competitive advantage in any profitable industry, including the healthcare sector.

This raises concerns about the management of personal data and its sovereignty. Perhaps this is the fundamental argument for Africa to invest in localised data centres, in which we can control our data.

Africa cannot simply be the consumer of technology, and if we desire to be an active player in its implementation, we will need to be the proud innovators and owners of our data and technology.

Gatherings such as the African Health Excon and innovations like the AI Health bot demonstrate that Africa is a serious player in the fifth industrial revolution and has the capabilities to operate in this field.

However, caution with optimism is the key balance to ensure that the African Union remains a respected stakeholder in the global community and that it, most importantly, embraces public-private partnerships toward its end goals.

Anything less will leave Africa behind and allow international competitors to consume the market for their advantage. Africa right now has the perfect opportunity to make the right choice for herself.

Prof. Eldrid Jordaan, CEO and Co-Founder of Suppple PLC