A team of entrepreneurs, researchers and health professional in Zambia are harnessing artificial intelligence to help improve care for pregnant women.
According to a 2022 study, Zambian women still have a 1% risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth, even though Zambia’s death rate for pregnant mothers decreased by more than half between 2000 and 2017.
Tafadzwa Kalisto Munzwa, founder and CEO of Dawa Health, headquartered in Lusaka, Zambia, says that their DawaMom project leverages AI-tools, last-mile health workers, mobile clinics, and digital tools to improve maternal and child health.
There are over 60 community health workers supporting in-community healthcare through DawaMom and over 800 mothers are signed up on the mobile platform.
“The generative AI models are patient-facing and respond to patient queries by fetching and constructing health advice from locally curated documents to support vernacular inquiries on the platform,” he says, adding that doctor-facing models analyze ultrasound scan images to identify high-risk pregnancies such as placenta previa, multiple pregnancies like twins, and baby uterus positions like breach.
The hope is that the AI-powered health platform democratizes access to maternal health care through a network of community health workers to achieve universal health coverage in Lower/Middle income countries and curb maternal mortality
“The additional research and datasets we are currently developing focus on postpartum hemorrhage and obstructed labor-cephalic-pelvic disproportion (CPD) using multiple maternal and fetal variables, Munzwa says, “We believe the models will help first-level clinicians (clinical officers, midwives, and medical licentiates) identify more high-risk pregnancies in time for referrals.”
He explains that all these projects aim to reduce maternal and child death and injury during pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood.
“Zambia is an ideal location to test this technology because the government, through the Ministry of Health, has a digital health strategy released in 2022, emphasizing the digitization of the healthcare system,” Munzwa says, adding that the government already runs complementary e-health platforms; mobile penetration and internet penetration is also relatively high.
“The biggest opportunity lies in the limited number of specialized health workers in Sub-Saharan Africa, echoing the need for accessible and more sophisticated technology like artificial intelligence to aid in quick and timely clinical decision-making, he says, adding that AI hallucination, biased training datasets, and over-reliance on such technology are all challenges along the way.
“We are working with an anthropology PhD student from the University of Cape Town and a biostatistician/physician to further generate empirical evidence around our work in maternal and child health,” Munzwa says.
DawaMom has been recognized by MIT Solve in their Caring Economy category.
Zimbabwe to Zambia
Munzwa grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe, where he was always tinkered around with electronics, computers, and backyard chemistry experiments, which he explains set the foundation for his current STEM work.
“My Eureka moment came in medical school when my close cousin had her first pregnancy with minor complications that eventually resolved,” Munzwa says, adding that this was the initial spark for him to look into the quality and accessibility of health services in his community.
“With my co-founding partners, we further dissected and researched how maternal and child health services were being delivered and the magnitude of the problem, finding unacceptable outcomes,” he says, “My career journey around research started with medical school research training, which caught my interest in scientific empirical methods as a form of evidence for policies, new models, and further research work.”
Munzwa explains that it is important for scientists from the Global South to lead research and solutions to global challenges because it is their families, communities, and economies that are most affected by these issues; and the adoption of these solutions relies heavily on who is leading and driving them.
“In my community, for example, many people were reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccines because most of them were manufactured and developed in the Global North,” he says, adding that there was many misconceptions and disinformation around the motives of the companies and individuals from the Global North leading the development of the vaccines.
“I have a strong cultural understanding of some barriers that exist for mass adoption of solutions developed from research work, which I hope will be vital in designing solutions that leapfrog those barriers and improve the lives of my communities,” Munzwa says.
Next Generation Healthcare
Another use of AI technology for community healthcare is being driven by Libyan doctor-turned-tech-CEO Mohamed Aburawi: his team provided mental health services in the area of northeastern Libya ravaged by flood waters and collapsed dams caused by Storm Daniel in late 2023.
“There’s an acute demand for trauma counseling, grief support and stress management,” he says, “We’ve mobilized a team of 40 remote mental health professionals offering consultations in the local Arabic dialect.”
Aburawi says that through partnerships with local telecom companies, his telehealth startup Speetar has been able to offer data packages to affected families, ensuring they can connect to the platform that incorporates localized linguistic and cultural nuances, as well as an in-built AI bot trained on disaster-specific data to help guide patients before they even connect with a specialist.
A quick response could prove decisive: a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed early mental health intervention in the aftermath of disasters can substantially reduce the risk of chronic psychiatric disorders, while a 2018 study showed telehealth interventions for mental health can save up to 40% of the costs compared to traditional in-person care, particularly beneficial in resource-limited settings.
Eugen Boglaru is an AI aficionado covering the fascinating and rapidly advancing field of Artificial Intelligence. From machine learning breakthroughs to ethical considerations, Eugen provides readers with a deep dive into the world of AI, demystifying complex concepts and exploring the transformative impact of intelligent technologies.