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Regulation and caution crucial for artificial intelligence in healthcare

Dr Aminah Zawedde (2nd R) launches the AI Health Lab

Dr Aminah Zawedde (2nd R) launches the AI Health Lab

Protecting patient privacy and surveillance, confidentiality, patient-clinician relationships of trust, love, respect, empathy and sympathy, informed consent and customized treatment plan are some of the ethical issues to observe as artificial intelligence technologies penetrate healthcare.  

Others include minimization of data misuse and erroneous decisions due to data bias and discrimination, lack of fairness, paucity of relevant data, inaccurate or incomplete data, and cybersecurity in its various aspects, writes JOHN MUSINGUZI.

The caution was given by Dr Sylvia Nabukenya of the Infectious Diseases Institute as she presented at the launch of the Health Intelligence Lab (AI Health-Lab) at the college of Computing and Information Sciences (CoCIS), Makerere University on May 30, 2024.

Nabukenya said because AI algorithms work on available data, there are potential risks of the ethical dilemmas of AI systems perpetuating or exacerbating disparities in healthcare outcomes among different demographic groups. Other concerning issues include how AI applications collect, store and use patient data, and how third-party vendors of AI-based healthcare solutions conduct themselves.

Officially launched by Dr Aminah Zawedde, permanent secretary of the ministry of ICT and National Guidance, the lab’s mission is to drive innovation in AI research to effectively address and overcome pressing health challenges. The lab will deepen the knowledge and applicability of AI’s transformative capacity; develop practical AI approaches to health issues; and facilitate interdisciplinary cooperation and partnerships.

FOUR PROJECTS SO FAR

Dr Rose Nakasi, a lecturer at CoCIS that won a Google grant of $1.5 million (about Shs 5.6 billion) and the head of the lab, said they started with malaria and tuberculosis diagnostics, later added cervical cancer and intestinal parasites, and intend to add more diseases and health conditions in future.

Nakasi said her AI lab will help free up overworked medical personnel and also make diagnoses faster and more accurate. AI is not a replacement for medical personnel; rather, it is a support tool, she asserted. So, in the lab, they develop tools and solutions including web applications that support and ease diagnosis and treatment procedures. The lab has four active projects so far.

Prof Tonny Oyana, the principal of CoCIS, highlighted the enormous potential this new lab brings for Uganda. He counseled students to build networks that lead to authoritative and influential referees, aim at teambuilding, build friendships within the lab, and advised faculty to mix and blend with students.

“A lab is a home for incubating ideas, and building friendships and synergies. A lab offers opportune space to integrate several perspectives and solutions to solve various problems; so, you need to adopt the ‘team science’ concept in all your activities, be flexible and talk to one another,” Oyana counselled.

Dr Alfred Andama, head of Microbiology Lab at Mulago national referral hospital, called for utilization of AI to investigate even the internal structures of various parasites.

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT AI

Presenters and panelists noted that AI, like any other technology, is a double-edged sword; it has advantages and disadvantages or unintended consequences. However, they all pointed out that majority of fears about AI are due to the technology being new and not experienced by many people; with time, the fears will evaporate.

There was optimism that the more common AI becomes, appropriate regulations against risks and abuse will be legislated and implemented. Speakers called for more public sensitisation about benefits of AI and against misconceptions and weird fears of AI displacing human beings.

“Human beings will still remain relevant. Just repackage and reeducate yourself, and enter a different field if AI is affecting you adversely or you are worried about it because of limited knowledge about it. Bridge your skills through practice, and by locating yourself where the experts are. You can self-educate through platforms such as YouTube. Endeavour to learn multitasks, but finding somebody better than you brings even more benefits,” Oyana advised.  

Dr Myers Lugemwa of ministry of Health said there are always resisters and outliers in society that will remain negative towards AI no matter what.

“We need to be assertive and move forward, because such people will always be around. We have to move on, train experts to use data to build useful models; train people to use new applications; and always consider and store any piece of data sets as capable of being utilised by AI in future times,” Lugemwa said.

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