By Abdulwasiu Mujeeb
Amidst the vibrant Nigerian cities and bustling towns lies a disheartening reality—stories of preventable mortality rates that afflict rural communities. The root cause? The scarcity of functional and responsive primary healthcare services. Shockingly, as recently as 2018, healthcare coverage in Nigeria’s rural areas plummeted to a mere 1.4 percent, burdening rural households with exorbitant healthcare expenses. This dire situation contributed significantly to the 60% mortality rate recorded in 2019, exposing the persistent chasms within the rural healthcare system.
In an earnest effort to address this crisis, the Federal Government launched the National Development Plan 2021-2025 in 2021. The primary objective was to expand the reach of Primary Health Care centers—a crucial component of the healthcare system, particularly prevalent in rural settings—from a mere 5% to an ambitious 25%. To set the wheels in motion, the government disbursed a substantial N101 Billion from the Basic Healthcare Provision Fund (BHPF) to 7,600 primary health care facilities in November 2021, aimed at rapid facility strengthening.
While this response is commendable, its effectiveness has been marred by gaps, particularly concerning the physical accessibility of the improved healthcare centers for rural dwellers. Barriers such as distinct lifestyles, standards, and inadequate transportation systems have impeded the seamless access to these facilities.
Faisal Shuaib, the Executive Director of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency, highlighted the prevailing challenge, stating, “Despite government efforts, the demand for Primary Healthcare services in the country has remained sub-optimal due to social, cultural, and geographical barriers,” during a May 2023 briefing.
The plight of rural Nigerians underscores the urgency to bridge the divide between improved healthcare services and their accessibility.
Nigeria can learn from Malawi and South Africa’s AI intervention
In stark contrast to Nigeria, two African countries, Malawi and South Africa, have emerged as pioneers in healthcare responsiveness, employing innovative solutions to bridge the gaps of inclusiveness for their impoverished and vulnerable populations.
In Malawi, the quest to provide responsible healthcare services to the underprivileged has long been a formidable challenge, particularly in terms of medicine accessibility. From 2008 to 2013, a mere 46% of the country’s rural populace had adequate access to healthcare.
However, a breakthrough came in 2019 when the Malawian government joined forces with their German counterparts for the Malawi-German drone and data aid project. This initiative revolutionized medical supply chains to remote areas by harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence technology. Utilizing W178 bi-directional drones renowned for their extensive range of up to 120 kilometers, essential medicines such as antibiotics, antimalarial drugs, pregnancy test kits, and pain relief medications are safely transported in a container affixed to the underside of the drones. This collaboration has resulted in a remarkable 166 medical supply drone deliveries, amounting to a total of 210 kg of medicine, as reported in 2021.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, the burden of treating and managing diabetes, which afflicts one in nine South Africans and ranks as a leading cause of death among women in the country, posed a significant financial challenge for many citizens. However, in 2019, the government made a decisive move to address this pressing issue by supporting Guidepost, a homegrown healthtech company. Together, they introduced an innovative artificial intelligence-powered chatbot tailored specifically to assist individuals with diabetes in effectively managing their illness. This AI-powered chatbot offers personalized information and continuous support, connecting patients with professional diabetes educators to enhance their understanding and self-care.
Since its inception, the innovative system has facilitated over 304,000 diabetes interventions, encompassing prompts for exercise and blood glucose measurement, between coaches and patients. The impact has been significant, as evidenced by Graham Rowe, CEO of Guidepost, who stated, “Based on our initial rollout to monitor uptake, our chatbot has seen the three-month average glucose levels of more than 2,000 patients drop to within normal levels.”
However, like any pioneering initiative, the Malawi drone project and South Africa’s chatbot implementation have encountered their fair share of challenges. Lecter Nyalguwe, a prominent health worker in Malawi, highlighted the ongoing issue of insufficient network connectivity, which has resulted in occasional diversions and misdirection for the drones during their service due to weak network reception.
Nyalguwe explained, “There are times when a drone loses its direction due to weak network reception or windy conditions. Additionally, the drones have a weight limitation of 6 kg, which means they cannot carry all the essential supplies that a health center may require.”
While the Malawi drone project and South Africa’s chatbot initiative have shown promise and yielded impressive results, it is crucial to address and overcome the challenges associated with network connectivity and payload capacity to ensure the sustained effectiveness and efficiency of these healthcare solutions.
The future holds numerous opportunities
In a conversation with this reporter, Jimi Adewale, an Artificial Intelligence researcher specializing in public health, emphasized that Artificial Intelligence interventions are increasingly becoming the ideal technology and the best tool to enhance operational efficiency and workflow optimization in healthcare. He noted that introducing Artificial Intelligence interventions in healthcare not only saves time but also has the potential to save lives, particularly in emergency situations. Furthermore, it can unlock significant value for the healthcare ecosystem.
Jimi further highlighted that while these benefits will primarily be experienced in rural areas, there is also substantial potential for Nigeria to harness its abundant, yet-to-be-discovered medical resources. This, in turn, could position the country as a prominent hub for phytomedical development through the utilization of machine learning models. According to him, Nigeria possesses a wealth of natural resources that, when combined with the power of AI, can contribute to the country’s growth as a center for advanced health research.
“Nigeria has a lot of natural and yet to be discovered medical resources that can help position the country to a great hub of phytomedical development center through the usage of machine learning models”. He explained.
Can Nigeria really adopt Artificial Intelligence?
The adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Nigeria is indeed a topic of discussion and consideration. Over the past few years, there has been an increase in both government and private sector investment in the development of AI-based healthcare solutions within the country. Some Nigerian healthcare institutions have already taken steps to implement AI-powered solutions to enhance healthcare delivery. For instance, the Lagos University Teaching Hospital has introduced an AI-powered system that utilizes machine learning algorithms to analyze mammograms and detect early signs of breast cancer.
However, as Jimi pointed out, the impact of AI adoption may be limited for the impoverished populations who lack basic amenities and essential healthcare services. He noted that many people in rural areas do not have access to the internet or high-end mobile devices, which restricts their ability to benefit from AI-driven platforms. These individuals have basic healthcare needs and may not even be aware of innovative developments happening at advanced healthcare facilities like the Lagos teaching hospital. Jimi suggests that one way to bridge this gap is by adopting projects similar to Malawi’s drone initiative, which can bring the presence of AI-powered healthcare to impoverished rural populations.
To effectively implement such initiatives, Jimi emphasizes the importance of providing safety and operational regulatory frameworks. Additionally, involving teams from various technology sectors within the country and forming partnerships with private companies experienced in the production of drones and related technologies, such as Profoforce and Geoinforech, could help overcome the challenges faced during the execution of projects, as witnessed in Malawi.
In summary, while Nigeria has begun exploring the adoption of AI in healthcare, it is crucial to address the unique challenges faced by impoverished populations in rural areas. Initiatives like the Malawi drone project could serve as a model for extending the benefits of AI-driven healthcare to those who need it the most, while the establishment of appropriate regulatory frameworks and partnerships can support the successful execution of such projects in Nigeria.
This story was produced in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.