The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are collaborating to expand the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in global healthcare.

The collaboration forms part of the newly established ITU Focus Group on AI for Health, which aims to develop an international ‘AI for health’ standards framework and to identify use cases of AI in the health sector that can be scaled-up for global impact. The group is open to all interested parties.

“AI could help patients to assess their symptoms, enable medical professionals in underserved areas to focus on critical cases, and save great numbers of lives in emergencies by delivering medical diagnoses to hospitals before patients arrive to be treated,” said ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao.

“ITU and WHO plan to ensure that such capabilities are available worldwide for the benefit of everyone, everywhere,” continued Zhao.

The demand for such a platform was first identified by participants of the second AI for Good Global Summit held in Geneva, 15-17 May 2018. During the summit, AI and the health sector were recognised as a promising combination, and it was announced that AI-powered technologies such as skin disease recognition and diagnostic apps based on symptom questions could be deployed on six billion smartphones by 2021.

The ITU Focus Group on AI for Health is coordinated through ITU’s Telecommunications Standardisation Sector – which works with ITU’s 193 Member States and more than 800 industry and academic members to establish global standards for emerging ICT innovations.

The Group will lead an intensive two-year analysis of international standardisation opportunities towards delivery of a benchmarking framework of international standards and recommendations by ITU and WHO for the use of AI in the health sector.

“I believe the subject of AI for health is both important and useful for advancing health for all,” said WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The ITU Focus Group on AI for Health will also engage researchers, engineers, practitioners, entrepreneurs and policy makers to develop guidance documents for national administrations, to steer the creation of policies that ensure the safe, appropriate use of AI in the health sector.

“1.3 billion people have a mobile phone and we can use this technology to provide AI-powered health data analytics to people with limited or no access to medical care. AI can enhance health by improving medical diagnostics and associated health intervention decisions on a global scale,” said ITU Focus Group on AI for Health Chairman, Thomas Wiegand.

“The health sector is in many countries among the largest economic sectors or one of the fastest-growing, signalling a particularly timely need for international standardisation of the convergence of AI and health,” continued Wiegand.

Data analytics will form a large part of the ITU focus group’s work. AI systems are proving increasingly adept at interpreting laboratory results and medical imagery and extracting diagnostically relevant information from text or complex sensor streams.

As part of this, the ITU Focus Group for AI for Health will also produce an assessment framework to standardise the evaluation and validation of AI algorithms – including the identification of structured and normalised data to train AI algorithms. It will develop open benchmarks with the aim of these becoming international standards.

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