NLP Chatbots for African Healthcare

Current opportunities for Chatbots development and deployment in the sub-Saharan African Healthcare market

Sub-Saharan Africa, the area of the African continent that consists of 46 countries that lie fully or partially below the Sahara desert is one of the fastest growing regions in the world both economically and demographically (World Bank, 2014). This impressive economic and population growth generates many new business opportunities in the healthcare sector and with it opportunities for chatbot development and deployment.

A thriving environment for the development of natural language processing knowledge assets

Sub-saharan Africa is a prime region for the development of natural language knowledge assets such as chatbot due to the data generated by its large population base, its increasing mobile broadband connectivity and its welcoming law regarding data privacy and business development.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a very young region and its population is still continuously expanding, which naturally creates a large input dataset that conversation engine relies on to be accurate. The area saw a continuous growth of about 11 million people a year from 1950 to 2010, reaching a total population of 856 million by the end of 2010. (Bakilana, 2015) By 2060, this number is expected to reach 2.7 billion, which is in sharp contrast with Europe’s declining population. This is mainly due to an advancement in healthcare which reduces the infant mortality rate and increases life expectancy.

Not only that, chatbot implementation can be easily streamlined in the region due to the increasing broadband connectivity in the area. Sub Saharan Africa boasted a formidable growth in internet connectivity driven by mobile broadbands connection, as seen in its impressive growth in mobile subscriber base. With smartphone price dropping to as low as $100 per device, the overall subscriber penetration rate doubled from just under 25% at the beginning of this decade to 44% in 2017 and is expected to increase to 52% by 2025. In 2025, 87% of total connections are expected to be a mobile broadband connection (GSMA, 2018). The widespread mobile adoption has to lead to a large scale collection of personal data through a mobile device that was unprecedented before.

Furthermore, the governments of countries in this area also have adopted a relaxed and encouraging approach towards data collection and chatbot development, which has led to a burgeoning tech scene emerging within the heart of the continent. Several big tech companies such as Facebook has already set up a strong foothold in this part of the continent with free services such as Free Basics while being rejected in other regions such as India with stricter data privacy law. Free Basics brings free basic internet access coverage to mass consumers in exchange for the collection of personally identifiable information (Iwuoha, 2016).

This digitization process is embraced by the healthcare industry in the region who rapidly started with the digitization of patient health record (Akanbi et al., 2012). This rapid accumulation of knowledge assets could represent an opportunity for the development of chatbot in the healthcare sector.

High Demand for Conversation Engine in Sub Saharan Africa Healthcare Sector

As the population of Sub-Saharan Africa continues to rise, the existing healthcare infrastructure in the region continues to struggle to keep up with the rising demand for basic and advanced healthcare. The mismatch in demand and supply is driven by an ever-growing demand for medical care from the growing population and a shortage of doctors and healthcare provider due to migration patterns. This growing mismatch in supply and demand naturally generate a demand for technology such as chatbot to fill in the missing gap in physical infrastructure.

The health industry in sub-Saharan Africa has enormous potential that is frequently overlooked by analysts. The region has just 11% of the world population but suffered from 24% of the global disease burden, which leaves plenty of room for improvement (Ngarari, 2017). Due to the lack of hospitals facility in the region, the wealthy, as well as political leaders, frequently travel outside to seek medical treatment (Mongalvie, 2017). As the economy of the region continues to rise in the future, more and more people will be able to afford healthcare, representing a huge potential in demand for health care.

In contrast, the healthcare workers and facility in sub-Saharan has been failing to keep up with the rising demand for medical care. In 2012, the ratio of physicians to people in Sub-Saharan Africa is just over 18 physicians over 100,000 people, compared to 280 physicians over 100,000 people for that of Europe. This low medical worker coverage is mainly due to emigration patterns of skilled workers to other destinations such as Europe, Australia and the United States (Mills et al., 2011).

The combination of a young growing population and a lack of medical professional due to emigration has created a critical shortage of healthcare workers in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. This has caused numerous problems for the region ranging from infectious disease outbreaks to child and adult mortality, heavily impacting the poor and the vulnerable (Haseeb, 2018). The inequality gives rise to many new exciting opportunities for new technology to fill in the gap in physical infrastructure by increasing the efficiency of existing healthcare providers.

Opportunities for Chatbot deployment in Sub-Saharan Africa

Given the rapid expansion of demand for medical care in Sub-Saharan Africa, the deployment of chatbot can help health care professionals bridge the gap and meet the demand by eliminating inefficiencies in hospitals. This can include either external chatbot targeting mass consumer or internal chatbot targeting doctors, clinics and hospitals.

External chatbot targeting mass consumer can help eliminate inefficiencies by reducing the volume of administrative tasks such as appointment scheduling, nurse triage or regular medical checkup. An example of external chatbot is Meditell, a chatbot platform that assists patients in taking their drugs through reminder alerts over SMS, website or voice.

Internal chatbot targeting healthcare professionals, clinics and hospitals on the other hand help eliminate inefficiencies within hospitals by streamlining clinical reference, drug search, treatment guidelines, and staff training. An example of internal chatbot is Wella Health which helps pharmacies keep records of the patient via SMS messaging and help promote patient loyalty.

In conclusion, Sub-Saharan Africa, a region once ravaged with epidemic outbreaks and extreme poverty, is now a prime market for deployment and development of chatbot due to its widening gap between and supply and demand in the healthcare industry. Chatbot can help eliminate inefficiencies in hospitals and the small number of medical professionals in the region to meet the increasing demand in the sector.