In the evolving landscape of global health, digital innovation emerges as a beacon of hope, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in healthcare access, quality, and affordability.

A recent white paper by the World Economic Forum, produced in collaboration with the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, EY, and Microsoft, sheds light on a shift: the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) in social innovation, especially within healthcare.

AI uptake has the potential to improve immunisation programmes, supply chains, referrals, diagnoses, drug safety, and overall health system efficiency.

The report finds three primary impact areas where AI is making significant contributions:

* Healthcare, with 25% of innovators using AI to advance access to health;

* Environmental sustainability, with 20% of social innovators applying AI to tackle climate solutions; and

* Economic empowerment, notably prevalent in lower-income countries where 80% of all initiatives aimed at enhancing livelihoods are based.

Healthcare is by far the most prevalent impact domain that social innovators are addressing with AI. Corresponding to this, one in four social innovators are deploying AI to advance Sustainable Development Goal 3, Good Health and Wellbeing. This is apparent across all geographies as innovators seek to adopt AI to address multiple challenges within the area of healthcare.

The report references BroadReach Group, a social impact organisation, that is using AI and machine learning to equip health care workers, leaders and institutions to better manage their scarce resources and drive better health outcomes for all.

Dr Ernest Darkoh, co-founder of BroadReach Group, says: “The fundamental issue in healthcare, whether you are in sub-Saharan Africa, Western Europe or the US, is that demand outstrips supply in terms of health services, doctors, nurses, and medications. The healthcare sector is trying to deliver on an antiquated model of ‘sick care’ without real-time intelligence on disease patterns, who is being affected the most, or the adequacy of healthcare resources.

“We need to change this paradigm to be more effective by leveraging data and digital solutions to ensure we are always spending the next hour and the next dollar in the in the most impactful way possible.”

The report also shows that Africa is emerging, with leaders like South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. Egypt and Kenya have developed national AI strategies. In other countries like Cameroon, individual social innovators are using AI to address healthcare challenges, such as developing low-cost diagnostic tools for malaria. The continent is also seeing AI applications in economic empowerment and various ML capabilities.

Paul Bhuhi, MD of Vantage, says: “AI is becoming more accepted, with healthcare leaders seeing the promise of AI to drive real improvement in health access, quality, and affordability. Yet, the education gap between innovators and the policy makers inhibits AI adoption, In our experience Rwanda and Kenya are leading that push but more needs to be done.”

The next generation of ethical generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) provides new hope for more equitable healthcare, but advances in technology must never come at the cost of patient rights. AI systems should start with guardrails and ethics within their foundational design.

Chris LeGrand, CEO of BroadReach Group, comments: “Regulatory frameworks for ethical use of AI in healthcare are still early stage but are progressing. The new Digital Trade Protocol recently adopted by African heads of state under the Africa Continental Trade Area (AfCTA) is an example of international bodies defining the desired digital landscape with rules based on common principles, including protecting personal data while promoting trusted, safe, ethical use of emerging technologies. Regulation is slowly evolving to create trust and confidence in the protection of health data.”