Not all African countries have such coverage though. Non-governmental organization PharmAccess helped create a digital wallet system that allows low-income Kenyans to save up for medical expenses, including contributions from other parties, such as relatives, NGOs, or the government.
Babyl signed a 10-year contract with Rwanda in 2020 and plans to launch a health center-based tool powered by artificial intelligence in the coming months that will funnel patients to an in-person consultation or its own digital and phone service. The aim is to relieve some of the in-person burden and speed up processes like validating insurance.
Germany-based Ada Health GmbH has been working in Tanzania since 2017, partnering with Swiss philanthropic organization Fondation Botnar. The company launched a localized version of its app in Swahili in 2019 in a bid to respond more directly to the region’s needs.
Hila Azadzoy, managing director of Ada’s global health initiative, describes its AI tool as an “agnostic” platform that can be tailored and integrated into existing health systems. About a third of the company’s user base for its main app is in low- and middle-income countries, she said.
Ada makes its AI tools available to partners such as Uganda’s Rocket Health, which has extended its call-based offering through a pilot with Ada’s symptom checker. The AI integration aided pandemic efforts over the last year and allowed nurses to resolve more than three-quarters of consultations in the pilot program without escalation, freeing up doctors, Rocket Chief Executive Officer Davis Musinguzi said.
The use of AI in health care can be complex and has faced criticism. Babylon’s symptom checker has come under particular scrutiny in the U.K. The company’s website notably describes its chatbot as offering “potential causes and possible next steps,” rather than being a diagnostic tool.
U.K. oncologist and vocal Babylon critic David Watkins has called the company’s symptom checker “dangerously flawed” and published examples of instances where the app has interpreted heart attack symptoms as a panic attack. Babylon said the app is constantly under surveillance and updated.
Data privacy and sovereignty protections also remain in their infancy in some African countries, raising concerns that companies can use the data for their own gain. Rwanda is introducing a data protection law, while Uganda did so in 2019. While Tanzania has no specific data privacy law, Ada applies GDPR principles in all its markets, Azadzoy said.
“This is a real concern in Africa,” said Marks, the law professor. “It can be a form of data colonialism.”
Medical needs will fuel growth regardless. Babylon is keen to expand further in sub-Saharan Africa, where new health providers keep cropping up.
“Currently there’s four billion people that lack even access to basic primary health-care services” globally, Ada’s Azadzoy said. “We cannot fill that gap” without technology.