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Harnessing artificial intelligence for the health of all

Imagine! Imagine if the greatest medical knowledge and expertise could be harnessed for the wellbeing of all, regardless of their location.  Imagine if we could harness expertise in cancer diagnosis and treatments, even in remote rural areas of Africa.  Imagine the possibilities.

One of the greatest barriers to health care is access to expert diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, but what if AI could be used to breakdown this barrier?  Even in the remotest areas there is often access to mobile phone technology.  Could this be harnessed to for the benefit of those who live in these areas.  Could AI be harnessed to ease the ever increasing demands on stretched human medical resources? 

Two United Nations specialist agencies are joining forces to expand the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the health sector to a global scale, and to 'leverage the power' of AI to advance health for all worldwide.

Creating a standards framework

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Health Organization (WHO) will work together through the newly established ITU Focus Group on AI for Health to develop an international "AI for health" standards framework and to identify use cases of AI in the health sector that can be scaled-up for global impact.

"AI could help patients to assess their symptoms, enable medical professionals in underserved areas to focus on critical cases, and save great numbers of lives in emergencies by delivering medical diagnoses to hospitals before patients arrive to be treated," said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.

ITU and WHO plan to ensure that such capabilities are available worldwide for the benefit of everyone, everywhere.

The demand for such a platform was first identified by participants of the second AI for Good Global Summit held in Geneva, 15-17 May 2018.

During the summit, AI and the health sector were recognised as a very promising combination, and it was announced that AI-powered technologies such as skin disease recognition and diagnostic applications based on symptom questions could be deployed on six billion smartphones by 2021.

The ITU Focus Group on AI for Health is coordinated through ITU's Telecommunications Standardization Sector – which works with ITU's 193 Member States and more than 800 industry and academic members to establish global standards for emerging ICT innovations. It will lead an intensive two-year analysis of international standardization opportunities towards delivery of a benchmarking framework of international standards and recommendations by ITU and WHO for the use of AI in the health sector. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says
I believe the subject of AI for health is both important and useful for advancing health for all  
The ITU Focus Group on AI for Health will also engage researchers, engineers, practitioners, entrepreneurs and policy makers to develop guidance documents for national administrations, to steer the creation of policies that ensure the safe, appropriate use of AI in the health sector.

1.3 billion people have a mobile phone and we can use this technology to provide AI-powered health data analytics to people with limited or no access to medical care. AI can enhance health by improving medical diagnostics and associated health intervention decisions on a global scale

So says Thomas Wiegand, ITU Focus Group on AI for Health Chairman, and Executive Director of the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute, as well as professor at TU Berlin.

The health sector is in many countries among the largest economic sectors or one of the fastest-growing, signalling a particularly timely need for international standardization of the convergence of AI and health.

Data analytics are certain to form a large part of the ITU focus group's work. AI systems are proving increasingly adept at interpreting laboratory results and medical imagery and extracting diagnostically relevant information from text or complex sensor streams.

As part of this, the ITU Focus Group for AI for Health will also produce an assessment framework to standardize the evaluation and validation of AI algorithms -- including the identification of structured and normalized data to train AI algorithms. It will develop open benchmarks with the aim of these becoming international standards. 

Access to care and treatment

So perhaps it is more than imagination, but if such analytics are to be successful it will require investment on the ground to match the diagnostic capabilities.  We still need to ensure the expertise is available on the ground to deliver appropriate treatment, or to ensure access to it.   But with political will these are not insurmountable problems.  

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