June 18, 2024

Applying a human-centred, women-informed lens to AI in healthcare

4 min read

Investing in women’s health is not only a moral imperative; it makes economic sense. It is time to turn talk into action – and a lasting commitment to regenerating women’s health.

“Shaping the private and public health agenda through increased advocacy and awareness, with governments and medical professionals putting women’s health on, and higher up, the agenda and targeting sources of stigma and bias – this is what we need to do right now,” said Jo Pohl, associate director at global management consultancy, Kearney.

She was speaking during a gathering at Kearney’s Johannesburg offices on 6 March 2024, following an event organised by Kearney to commemorate International Women’s Day. Guests listened to the story of “Tina B”, the longest surviving heart and bilateral lung transplant recipient in Africa. The event explored Tina’s resilience, the challenges she faced, the odds she beat, and just how different her journey could have been with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) in donor healthcare decision-making.

Tina shared her opinion on the use of AI in selecting organ donors. She told guests at the event that she believes if AI had to decide whether she should receive her surgery or not, it would have decided against her, based on inherent biases or rather what the AI was asked to solve for. According to her, AI would have assessed the state of her lungs and heart and potentially rejected her as a candidate for organ donation. Since she needed three organs, AI would have viewed her as one, high-risk candidate versus the potential to save three ‘better’ candidates.

The human element – from intuition to hope and optimism – is key. She told guests that her doctors echoed the same in terms of leveraging experience, expertise and an understanding of a patient’s mindset. “I am not an expert in AI, but I am an expert in being a patient,” she said. “AI could help inform options, but needs to be questioned, and experienced doctors need to be able to apply their human intuition in any results.”

Typically, there are more than 4 000 people on the organ transplant waiting list at any given time, with only 0.2% of the population opting in for organ donation. These kinds of numbers lead to questions such as ‘how is one candidate chosen over another, and why’ – questions that become even more important as we increasingly incorporate AI in healthcare decisions.

“Just think of the implications for healthcare professionals, researchers and policymakers to develop and implement AI in healthcare ethically, equitably and inclusively, if we consider transplant patients,” said Pohl.

“AI in healthcare should be used to benefit all members of society, regardless of gender, race or socio-economic status. How can we co-create a world where everyone is seen, heard and the human considered in healthcare decision-making?” commented Theo Sibiya, Kearney’s Africa managing director. “There needs to be a deliberate focus on keeping women front of mind and lending our expertise to continue breaking down barriers such as the gender health gap by redesigning healthcare that can put women first.”

Tina B has now become an advocate for organ donation and aims to help others going through the waiting process. She told guests of her experience of having to wait three years on the organ donor waiting list. “You start to lose hope. You get excited to get on the list, but time drags on, and your body starts to fail you… it is a very dark place. I was tired of fighting to breathe, to stay awake; I remember saying to my God: If you don’t give me a transplant, then take me home.”

AI has the potential to revolutionise the healthcare industry. With the ability to analyse large amounts of data quickly, AI can help healthcare professionals make more informed decisions, improving patient outcomes. It is an ‘and’ versus ‘or’ proposition.

“We need to be mindful, however, of inherent gender biases, overcome programming that favours males, and address flaws in the interpretation of data that exclude human perspectives. Doing so can make AI in healthcare more representative and inclusive,” said Sibiya.

Pohl explained that a women-informed lens is essential to ensuring equity and inclusivity in AI development and application.

“Regenerate is Kearney’s answer to ‘what’s next’ in a post-resilience world and a timely approach to how businesses can and should be ready for the future. Tina B is a living example of regeneration; her story amplifies our Kearney commitment to a global campaign to ‘be the difference’ for women’s health, which we launched in Davos earlier this year,” noted Sibiya. “This amplifies our vision, rooted in a regenerative mindset that recognises the interconnectedness of our actions and their impact on the world around us, including how we make and execute healthcare and people decisions.”

As part of this vision, an open letter was released by Kearney and FemTechnology during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting on behalf of the Redesigning Healthcare with Women in Mind signatories. The letter is addressed to all those within the healthcare ecosystem whose innovations have impact and decisions have power: from pharma, biotech and medtech firms to investors, tech companies and consumer health players serving women and girls.

The signatories call for a commitment to challenge institutional gender inequalities and shape the future of public and private healthcare for those it has failed for far too long.

Image: Jo Pohl, Nothando Ntombela (Manager, Kearney) and Tina B

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