The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered an unprecedented demand for digital technology-based solutions in screening populations, tracking infections and minimising direct human contact.

To leverage the use of technologies in the African Region and strengthen health systems, WHO, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and USAID presented to the Member States at the Seventy-Second Session of the World Health Organisation Regional Committee (RC 72) the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) and its safe and effective use in the African region.

Digital technology plays a vital role in protecting medical personnel by limiting direct contact with patients, disinfecting controlled environments and disseminating public health and emergency messages.

Technologies like AI have the potential to offer new insights and tools to improve clinical decision-making and predictive analytics for health emergency preparedness, mitigate workforce shortages, tailor programmes targeting at areas of greatest need, improve forecasting of disease outbreaks and bring efficiencies to health service delivery.

Given the rapid increase of mobile phone coverage, leveraging the use of digital technology in Africa’s health sector is vital to manage different health crises and strengthen health care systems through effective and more efficient digital mechanisms.

However, the gap in digital health ecosystems of many African countries need to be addressed in order to plan wider utilization and adoption of digital and AI technologies.

“Covid-19 will not be the last health threat to our societies and economies. As such, we need to heed the lessons it has delivered – the urgent need for new skills, approaches, and tools such as AI – to ensure we are better prepared for the next big shock event,” says Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa at the launch.

Realising the full potential of digital technology including AI requires strengthening the policy and the regulatory environment, system infrastructure, sustainable financing, security and workforce capacity as well as diversity in the stakeholders involved in digital health and technology innovation.

“The potential of AI to advance our countries towards the achievement of Universal Health Coverage is very clear. As WHO, we are fully committed to supporting Member States to reap all benefits. I would like to urge Member States to make full use of this important tool; it is a key resource in the implementation of AI,” says Dr Moeti.

To execute the full potential of digital technology, Member States identified concrete actions for shaping policy and enabling environments to foster digital technologies, which include among others strengthening underlying digital infrastructure and digital health systems.

Member States recognized the potential of digital health and AI to address multiple challenges for Universal Health Coverage and acknowledge the need to strengthen collaboration, transfer knowledge on digital health, advance the implementation of the strategy and advocate for people centered health system to achieve sustainable development goals.

Following the endorsement of the WHO global strategy on digital health and the WHO AFRO Framework for Implementing the Global Strategy on digital health in the WHO African Region, the Regional Office is working with partners to generate reference materials relevant to AI for health in the context of the African region.