Study identifies leaders in AI-driven healthcare research

Although South Africa is in the third position of the top 10 productive countries in the world regarding artificial intelligence (AI) for healthcare research in Africa after the United Kingdom and the United States, it has only one university – the University of Cape Town – included in the list of the top 10 institutions in the world.

This shows that South African institutions should increase their efforts to become leading institutions. Other African countries should “pull up their socks to do well in AI for healthcare research in Africa”, according to a study published in the journal AI and Ethics recently.

The study, titled ‘Exploring the status of artificial intelligence for healthcare research in Africa: A bibliometric and thematic analysis’, aimed to “bridge the gap between AI capabilities and healthcare needs in Africa, ultimately contributing to the development of contextually relevant and impactful AI applications in the field of healthcare on the continent”.

AI solutions should be tailored

The Tanzanian authors explain that “understanding the current state of AI research in African healthcare is essential for developing AI solutions that are tailored to the specific conditions that exist on the continent, which include the prevalence of infectious diseases and the scarcity of resources”. The article was written by Tabu Kondo, Salim Diwani, Ally Nyamawe and Mohamed Mjahidi from the University of Dodoma in Tanzania.

Their study examined the publishing trends, the most productive and influential countries, institutions and authors, and the most prevalent themes of AI for healthcare in Africa.

AI publications show interdisciplinary nature

The study indicates that, since 2000, 5,309 scholarly contributions have been published. These include 4,270 research articles (80.43% of the total) in journals, followed by book chapters (237), conference proceedings (193), books (134), preprints (78), and reports (41).

The publications were distributed across various fields of study, including computer science (1,070), medicine (881), biology (524), AI (510), psychology (481), population (338), business (314), context (language use) (276), machine learning (267) and geography (265).

The researchers found that the broad distribution among different fields reflects “the interdisciplinary nature and wide-ranging applications of AI and machine learning” in healthcare research, and highlights AI’s capacity to influence various facets of healthcare, encompassing clinical practice, medical research, public health, and business operations.

The journal Annals of Tropical Medicine and Public Health published by the Africa Health Research Organization, is the top journal with 220 AI articles, followed by 123 publications in PLOS’s suite of open-access journals and, in third place, MDPI AG’s Remote Sensing, with 49 publications.

South Africa leads on the continent

The study identified the top 10 active countries in the world where publications on AI for healthcare research in Africa are published. These include the UK (1,391 publications), the US (1,343), South Africa (350), Australia (291), Germany (260), The Netherlands (227), Spain (208), Canada (198), Switzerland (184), and China (179).

“These prominent AI research participants can serve as potential international partners and an example for other nations with fewer publications to follow,” the study points out.

South Africa is among the top three countries contributing to developing AI for healthcare research in Africa. The top 10 productive countries in Africa are South Africa (350 articles), Nigeria (77), and Kenya (49) followed by Uganda (29), Ghana (25), Ethiopia (22), Tanzania (17), Egypt (10), Mali (9), Cameroon (8), Botswana (8), Malawi (8), and Morocco (8).

African institutions under-represented

The top 10 institutions that are more productive in AI for healthcare include seven universities in the UK, namely the University of London, University College London, University of Edinburgh, University of Oxford, King’s College London, University of Cambridge, and Imperial College London as well as two American institutions, Harvard University and Stanford University, along with South Africa’s University of Cape Town.

The study showed that “the UK is the most productive and cooperative nation and that African scholars are significantly under-represented in these publications”.

The study also showed that Harvard University is at the top of the most cited institutions in the world concerning research in AI for healthcare, followed by the Eli and Edythe L Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (referred to as the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research centre located in Cambridge, Massachusetts), and the US National Institutes of Health.

“There is no African institution in the list of the top 10 most-cited institutions. Hence, African institutions should make more efforts to publish research articles that will be cited frequently,” the researchers point out.

Regarding the areas of study covered by the most active institutions, the study found that King’s College London is at the top in medicine, while Harvard University is at the top in biology. Furthermore, University College London is at the top in psychology. Cardiff University in Wales is at the top in computer science, and Harvard University is again at the top in AI.

Institutions should step up

“No African institution is at the top in any field of study. This implies that African countries should make more efforts to enable their institutions to compete with the rest of the world in all areas of study,” the study notes.

The study indicated that “it is more constructive to view AI research in healthcare as a collaborative global endeavour, where knowledge sharing and cross-regional partnerships can lead to advancements that benefit healthcare systems worldwide”. Based on this, efforts should be focused on building research capacity, fostering collaborations and providing resources to empower AI research in Africa.

African nations also need to draw up targeted strategies that reflect their unique challenges and strengths.

“Collaborations with international partners, investment in local capacity-building, and the development of AI solutions tailored to the African context are all essential steps toward leveraging AI’s potential to improve healthcare outcomes across the continent,” the researchers recommend.