The Critical Role Technology Plays in Democratizing Health Care | Opinion

Technology has left no part of the world untouched. While critics may have previously argued that it contributes to an increased sense of loneliness or lack of connectivity, I would assert that during the pandemic, technology strengthened our connections, saved countless lives and continued to propel modern medicine forward, democratizing health care in a way like never before. While health care in the United States and other high-income nations is largely available, in low- and middle-income countries, access to medicine, physicians and treatments remains limited. In these health care deserts, diseases that have long since been eradicated in our country continue to affect lives. Children are susceptible to everything from malaria to trachoma, and the effects have a debilitating impact not only on the individuals and families directly affected, but on entire economies.

Eye care is one of the greatest areas of impact. Compounded by the pandemic, common but completely avoidable eye conditions continue to impact hundreds of millions of people on a global scale, decimating the vision of the low- and middle-income populations hardest hit. Vision impairment has been well-documented as posing an enormous global financial burden. A recent study in The Lancet estimated that vision impairment resulted in $410 billion in lost economic productivity in 2020 alone. But every dollar invested in eye health in low- and middle-income countries is estimated to yield $4 in economic gain. To help eradicate avoidable blindness worldwide, nonprofits like Orbis are leaning into technology and innovative approaches to in-country programming not only to increase access to health care, but also to train physicians in their home countries.

Delivering in-person care is the most common way NGOs work to instigate change, but it is not the most sustainable. The pandemic brought this to the forefront like never before. Organizations that have traditionally traveled globally to areas with limited resources, providing treatment to those needing it the most, found themselves with flights grounded and social distancing in full effect. As an answer to this, telemedicine—something once reserved for high-income countries—became a mainstream solution on a global scale.

Migrant worker attends a teleconsultation
A Malian migrant worker attends a teleconsultation on suspicion of COVID-19 in Paris, on May 8, 2020. CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP via Getty Images

Increasing a country's capacity for teleconsultations not only allows for a personalized approach to remote care, it further allows for analytical findings to be transmitted in real-time. With many diseases, regardless of the part of the body impacted, time is of the essence. Something as simple as a quick diagnosis can make the difference between paralysis and walking, between sight and blindness. These real-time consultations not only provide access to physicians in areas that need them the most, but also allows for coaching and training throughout the diagnostic process, surgery or treatment, and well into recovery, bridging the gap with great results during the pandemic.

As the need for health care continues to grow in low- and middle-income countries, traditional means for providing care assistance have started to lose scalability. For these countries, another option comes into play: artificial intelligence. When coupled with specialized eye examination cameras (or even smartphones with lens attachments), the technology brings further expertise into their clinic, working in conjunction with physicians on the ground. In a matter of seconds, images uploaded to highly specialized systems, like Orbis' Cybersight AI, can be analyzed, detecting common eye diseases with stunning accuracy, taking what might have been a devastating outcome off the table. In areas where patients must travel long distances to get care, these quick results can also mean the difference between them pursuing or abandoning critical follow-up care. Here in the U.S., the Veteran's Affairs Department has provided millions of veterans with telehealth interactions, especially impacting patients who live in rural areas, where VA hospitals are few and far between.

Diagnostics are only the tip of the iceberg, however; training and education further support the impact technology can have on democratizing health care. Cybersight AI, for example, is also helping eye care professionals learn how to better identify diseases themselves in the future by providing annotated results of diagnostic imaging as well as remote access to medical experts for further explanation—a concept Orbis calls "machine mentoring." By providing virtual access to specialists, countries that may have only one ophthalmologist, neurologist, or pathologist find themselves with an increased level of support and mentoring, which is especially vital in complex cases. This critical training and collaboration helps doctors in underserved communities feel even more empowered to provide quality care thanks, in part, to their training. Taking this one step further, organizations are eyeing other technologies like simulation technology, remote wetlabs and virtual reality to provide comprehensive real-time education, even from afar.

From automating basic clinical workflows to making recommendations and referrals for potential life-saving treatments, the benefits of equipping health care workers and patients with these powerful tools span far and wide. Technologies can work in tandem alongside dedicated professionals to usher in a new wave of health care—a democratized system that works for all of us.

Dr. Nicolas Jaccard is the principal AI architect at Orbis, an international nonprofit that transforms lives through the prevention and treatment of avoidable blindness. Throughout his career working in academia, technology startups and nonprofits, Nicolas has developed end-to-end expertise in machine learning and artificial intelligence, from algorithm development to productization. As an "AI for Good'' enthusiast and practitioner, Nicolas has worked across the biotechnology, security, road safety and health care sectors.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.