Is medtech the sole domain of the rich, ignoring the world’s poor?

8 Jun 2017

Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation. Image: a katz/Shutterstock

Innovations in healthcare are often astounding, though are they universally useful? When it comes to truly global advances, some people aren’t too sure.

3D-printing patients’ cells back onto their damaged knees, healing painful injuries. 3D-printing cartilage-mimicking material to help replace bone.

New tools to manipulate organs out of surgeons’ way during the most delicate of operations. Using VR to help rewire human brains and tackle Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and depression.

Future Human

Strapping sensors to paraplegics’ heads to help them regain hand movement. CRISPR, AAV and every other new acronym entering the crazy world of gene therapy.

Medtech, WHO

Forward and backwards

These are just some of the stunning advances made, or being made, in healthcare in recent years, as medtech becomes mainstream.

However, are these new approaches to health care only helping the rich, while ignoring the poor?

That’s a fear held by Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), who doubts that today’s AI advances in healthcare are helping those who truly need them.

Speaking at the UN’s AI Global Summit for Good, Chan lamented the reliance on tangible technologies that may never reach the world’s most needy.

She worried that big data, AI, and everything in between, are far removed from what could truly help people in areas with antiquated technology, or no modern technology at all.

Above all, she was concerned that, while our focus is on the next cool piece of surgical equipment, those that needed it most would never find the means to acquire it.

Lack of facilities

“Over the past decade, I have visited many countries where the majority of health facilities lack such basics as electricity and running water,” she said.

“I would be hard-pressed to sell these countries on the advantages of AI when even standard machines for analysing patient samples or sterilising equipment cannot run for want of electrical supplies.”

Any talk of medtech advances, so, should take into account these huge gaps in basic capacities, according to Chan.

We can’t all have access to cutting-edge operating theatres. Image: Nimon/Shutterstock

We can’t all have access to cutting-edge operating theatres. Image: Nimon/Shutterstock

Financial inclusion

In fintech, there is an entire industry that looks at tailoring the needs of people in areas less technologically advanced than the west.

Financial inclusion, for those unaware, is the process through which technological advances allow greater parts of society into positions that can service finance better.

‘Better’ could be faster avenues of transactions, fewer obstacles, a clearer understanding, or a lower cost of service, but, either way, it is improving access for people to transfer money and, therefore, run a business.

This could be as simple as antiquated mobile phones in poorer countries that are now capable of handling minor transactions for a local trader, or a clearly laid out set of affordable credit options for those on lower incomes.

Healthcare companies should not forget that this should be a focus, too.

And it shouldn’t be too much to ask, considering the major health concerns are found across the board, country to country.

Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases are “profoundly shaped by human behaviours and the environments in which people make their lifestyle choices”, said Chan.

This is universal, across all demographics and geographies. Finding something that can work for those neediest should be a focus, said Chan, though universality isn’t an impossibility.

That’s because of what you could be reading this article on right now: a smartphone.

They’re everywhere

Chan claims to have observed “the ubiquitous presence of smartphone” throughout her decade of travels, even in the most resource-constrained settings.

“Schools may not have toilets or latrines. Children may not have shoes. But smartphones are ready to hand.”

Everyone has a smartphone it seems. Image: Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock

Everyone has a smartphone, it seems. Image: Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock

Healthcare aids through smartphones, so, could be one way to go. Though three areas of caution were raised by Chan.

“First, medical decisions are complex. They depend on context and values such as care and compassion. I doubt that a machine will ever be able to imitate genuine human compassion.

“Second, machines can aid the work of doctors, organise, rationalise, and streamline the processes leading to a diagnosis or other medical decision, but AI cannot replace doctors and nurses in their interactions with patients.

“Third, we must consider the context and what it means for the lives of people. What good does it do to get an early diagnosis of skin or breast cancer if a country offers no opportunity for treatment, has no specialists or specialised facilities and equipment, or if the price of medicines is unaffordable for both patients and the health system?”

Three valid concerns. It’s up to industry to address them.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic