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Bill and Melinda Gates are backing a new tool that lets you type in any illness symptoms and learn what’s ailing you

Bill and Melinda Gates are backing a new tool that lets you type in any illness symptoms and learn what’s ailing you

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • A symptom-checking tool called Ada Health is launching a new partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • On Wednesday, the startup will begin working with the Gates Foundation to study how the tool could support healthcare workers in rural parts of the world.
  • Ada Health is already one of the most popular medical apps in over 130 countries.

Getting to the doctor when you’re not feeling well is no easy task no matter where you live. But in many parts of the world, there are bigger problems than high costs and long wait times.

For roughly half the globe’s population, basic healthcare is a luxury that’s too expensive to get. So Ada Health, a tool that lets you type in your symptoms to learn what’s causing them, is launching a new initiative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to extend the reach of its services.

The Ada app is designed to tell you what’s causing your symptoms with more accurate results than you’d get from a Google search. Users open the app, enter their age and gender, and type in a symptom like pain or a cough. Then an AI-powered bot asks several questions, like what makes the symptom worse, and tells you the most likely culprit.

Starting today, Ada is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study how the platform can be used to support healthcare workers in rural parts of several countries in East and Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, and India.

The project is part of Ada’s new Global Health Initiative, a series of projects focused on improving access to primary care in underserved populations across the world. The effort will involve work with local governments, NGOs and other partners as well.

“The reason we’re doing this is the same reason why we started Ada in the first place: it’s about giving people better access to quality healthcare,” Daniel Nathrath, CEO and co-founder of Ada Health, told Business Insider. “While it’s a noble goal to pursue it in the US or Germany, it’s even more important in countries where so many people don’t have access to a doctor.”

Currently, the app is available in roughly 130 countries including Germany (where it started), the US, and Canada. Already, roughly a third of Ada’s customers hail from countries outside of Germany, according to the company.

To Google or not to Google

The Ada Health team. From left to right: pediatrician Claire Novorol, Daniel Nathrath, and neuroscientist Martin Hirsch.

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The Ada Health team. From left to right: pediatrician Claire Novorol, Daniel Nathrath, and neuroscientist Martin Hirsch.
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Ada Health

To Google or not to Google – that’s often the question when it comes to an ailment like a cough or stomach pain.

But researching your symptoms online can send you down a rabbit hole that leads you to think you have a life-threatening condition. A trip to the doctor, n the other hand, can be time-consuming and expensive.

Nathrath and his co-founder, Claire Novorol, created Ada Health to give people a third option.

Unlike the results that come from sites like WebMD, Ada’s results are based on a growing database of hundreds of thousands of people that match your age and gender. The idea is that by homing in on a population sample you fit into, Ada can give more accurate results.

Say you’re a 31-year-old woman experiencing stomach pain, for example. Once you type in your symptoms and answer Ada’s questions, it might tell you that most of the other 31-year-old women in the database who reported your symptoms were diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Then Ada may advise visiting a healthcare provider. Or if the likely cause of your symptoms is not a serious issue, Ada may suggest that you simply rest.

ada health symptom q

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Ada Health

Putting Ada into the hands of healthcare workers

As part of the new partnership with the Gates Foundation, Ada researchers will look at the data the app gathers in several rural, low-income parts of the world to better understand patients’ needs and learn how to improve healthcare delivery to these regions.

In the future, Nathrath said he hopes such insights could be used to do things like help stop a deadly outbreak.

Hila Azadzoy, Ada’s managing director of the Global Health Initiative, told Business Insider that her team is now working to equip Ada with more relevant data on tropical diseases like Chagas and dengue. They’re also analyzing what kinds of physical diagnostic tests they could give people – along with Ada – to confirm some of its assessments.

“Most healthcare workers work door-to-door and can track patient symptoms,” Azadzoy said. “The vision we have is we can put Ada into their hands and even connect Ada with diagnostics tests so that – at the home of the patient -they can pull it out and say, ‘OK this is confirmed,’” she said.

Are symptom checkers the next big thing in primary care?

Since it was founded in Berlin in 2011, Ada has raised $69.3 million with the help of several big-name backers including William Tunstall-Pedoe, the AI entrepreneur behind Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s chief business officer Philipp Schindler. The company says Ada has already been used by 6 million people in the US and Europe, where it is one of the highest ranked medical apps.

Ada is not the only tool that lets users input and track their symptoms. Another so-called “symptom checker” is primary-care app K Health, which launched in 2016.

If these services can get the science and AI right, they offer a long list of potential benefits, including reducing healthcare costs, saving time for patients and doctors, slashing unnecessary worry – and even, one day perhaps, helping to prevent an outbreak like Ebola.

But more data is needed on the effectiveness of these services. The last comprehensive assessment of symptom checkers was published by Harvard Medical School researchers in 2015, before Ada or K Health existed. Since then, at least half a dozen other services have emerged as well.

Until better data becomes available on these apps, they can at least offer users an educated assessment about what’s causing a symptom like a sore throat. And in rural areas where people don’t have access to a healthcare provider, that could be a huge source of support.

“The first step towards getting the right treatment is understanding what’s ailing you,” Nathrath said.

The CEO of the Gates Foundation says a wave of progress rippling through China and India could slash poverty in Africa — if women lead the way

The CEO of the Gates Foundation says a wave of progress rippling through China and India could slash poverty in Africa — if women lead the way

A family eats 'Fou Fou' Kasava and fish in the West Lake Edward village of Lunyesenge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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A family eats ‘Fou Fou’ Kasava and fish in the West Lake Edward village of Lunyesenge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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Brent Stirton/Getty Images for WWF-Canon
  • The Gates Foundation released its second annual Goalkeepers Report today, a project that’s meant to keep yearly tabs on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations.
  • In the report, Bill Gates and his team applaud the fact that hundreds of millions of people have risen out of extreme poverty in the past couple of decades, but warn the progress may not continue.
  • Keeping more women in school, and letting them decide when they want to have kids would both help a lot.

There’s a crude but simple way to measure extreme poverty around the world. Look at how many people are living on less than $1.90 a day. The higher the number, the worse-off we are.

The good news is that the number of people getting by on that much has been steadily falling for decades, with over a billion people surging over the mark since 1990, according to the World Bank.

China’s on track to nearly eliminate this income bracket by 2030. So is India.

Now, it’s time for sub-Saharan Africa to follow suit, a new report from the Gates Foundation argues.

The Goalkeepers report is an annual check-up that’s meant to keep tabs on the United Nation’s sustainable development goals, which aim to end poverty, hunger, and generally improve people’s lives around the world by 2030.

In this year’s Goalkeepers report, the normally optimistic Gates Foundation says the wave of poverty-busting prosperity that rushed over China in the 1990s and then India in the 2000s, lifting more than 750 million people in those countries above the $1.90-a-day mark, is not yet guaranteed on the African continent.

“The big message is that progress is possible, but it’s not inevitable,” Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann told Business Insider. “We really need to have a third wave, and it needs to happen in sub-Saharan Africa.”

[Read More: The CEO of The Gates Foundation says we’re approaching a dangerous tipping point in global poverty. We still have time to reverse it.]

china india end extreme poverty chart

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Business Insider

Both China and India have complicated economic success stories that are nowhere near complete.

But lower fertility rates are arguably linked to better incomes in both countries: China’s birth rate tumbled from 5.7 per woman in 1960 to 1.6 in 2016, while India’s went from 5.9 to 2.3, according to World Bank data. At the same time, those two countries became global economic powerhouses. The gains meant more people could feed and send their kids to school, ensuring the betterment of coming generations.

“It’s fantastic to see the kinds of gains in health and education we’ve seen,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “But the worry, the peril, is that more babies are being born in the places where it’s hardest to live a healthy, productive life.”

In the years to come, many of the poorest babies (and 86% of the world’s extreme poor) are going to be born in a cluster of sub-Saharan African countries, particularly in two specific nations: The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. Those two countries alone could account for nearly half of the world’s poorest people by 2050, according to Gates Foundation estimates. Both of their birth rates have barely budged since 1960.

Much of the poverty there will be driven by rapid population growth, more than doubling the number of people in both countries. The staggering increase could be altered, though, if women and girls get to better choose how many children they have from the get-go.

Women in Africa are currently having an average of about .7 more children than what they’d ideally want. If they got to decide how many kids they birthed, having one or two less, the projected rapid population growth could decrease 30% by 2100, according to the foundation. That would make everyone healthier, smarter, and richer too.

“You want those young people to have healthy, productive lives,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “Nutrition, and early childhood nutrition, are extremely important.”

A malnourished refugee mother and child in a ward of the Medecins Sans Frontieres Hospital in the Dagahaley refugee camp on July 22, 2011 in Dadaab, Kenya.

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A malnourished refugee mother and child in a ward of the Medecins Sans Frontieres Hospital in the Dagahaley refugee camp on July 22, 2011 in Dadaab, Kenya.
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Oli Scarff/Getty Images

“We think investments in voluntary, modern contraception for women who want to decide when she has her children and to space her children, that’s a really important investment that we could make as a foundation,” Desmond-Hellmann said.

The $50 billion-plus Gates Foundation has spent more than $15 billion on projects in Africa to date, but much of the push has been for more vaccines, as well as in HIV and malaria prevention and treatment. While the foundation is still researching new treatments for HIV and providing vaccinations in 73 countries around the world, some of the foundation’s health focus is shifting to baby-making.

Desmond-Hellmann says the Gates Foundation will now invest more in family planning and contraception.

It’s arguably filling a needed void at a time when the US is dialing down its own family planning foreign aid. Just days after President Trump took office in January 2016, the administration reintroduced the decades-old Mexico City Policy, which essentially zeros out American dollars to any NGOs that might even mention the word abortion when they’re counseling women.

Practically, it means that women living in remote, impoverished areas have less access to all kinds of contraceptive care and family planning advice. In Madagascar, even though abortion is illegal, the policy is still preventing many low-income women from accessing free contraception like implants and IUD devices, as NPR reported last year.

Without access to contraception, it’s harder for young girls to stay in school, or help plant crops at home. More access to contraception “would enable more girls and women to stay in school longer, have children later, they could earn more as adults, and they could invest more in their children,” as Desmond-Hellmann put it.

But only if they have a choice.

The CEO of The Gates Foundation says we’re approaching a dangerous tipping point in global poverty. We still have time to reverse it.

The CEO of The Gates Foundation says we’re approaching a dangerous tipping point in global poverty. We still have time to reverse it.

Refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo cook food in the Kagoma reception centre within the Kyangwali settlement on April 10, 2018 in Kyangwali, Uganda.

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Refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo cook food in the Kagoma reception centre within the Kyangwali settlement on April 10, 2018 in Kyangwali, Uganda.
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Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Bill Gates likes to tout himself as a pretty sunny guy. He regularly asserts that the world is getting better every day, in spite of the fact that the price of a loaf of bread is climbing, many people can no longer afford to buy a place to live, and free and fair elections are consistently under threat.

Gates remains undeterred. “Overall, I’m quite optimistic,” he told a crowd of Harvard students in April.

He uses hard numbers to back up this persistently cheery outlook, pointing out that since the $50 billion-plus Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began in 2000, the number of extremely poor people around the world has fallen sharply.

Since then, over one billion previously impoverished people have busted out of a so-called “extreme poverty” income bracket to live on more than $1.90 a day. In practical terms, this means there are fewer and fewer people getting around on two bare feet, cooking over a flame, and sleeping on the ground.

In 2017, the Gates Foundation launched its first annual Goalkeepers report, checking in on the UN Sustainable Development Goals to see how far we have come in the fight against infectious disease and poverty.

That first report asserted that the world is gradually getting better on those measures. Now the Gates Foundation is sounding the alarm, warning in its second Goalkeepers report that the stunning poverty progress of the past few decades could crash to a halt if more isn’t done to help people stay in school and get enough to eat.

While the number of extremely poor people living in countries like China and India looks to be relatively on track to zero out by 2030, the number of people living in poverty in some of the world’s poorest sub-Saharan African countries is still creeping upward – and could skyrocket if current trends continue.

Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellman says that forecasted downturn into extreme poverty is not inevitable. She believes the Foundation’s biggest task today is helping prevent more poverty in Africa, largely by letting women take the lead in starting and growing their own families.

“If every African woman was able to have the number of children that she wants, you could have a decrease in population growth by 30% by 2100,” Desmond-Hellman told Business Insider. “And that’s just if she gets to do what she wants.”

Education also plays a key role. China experienced its own dramatic poverty reduction in 1990s, arguably spurred in no small part by more educated women entering the workplace. India followed suit in the 2000s. Now is the time to foster a similar African “wave” of prosperity, the Gates Foundation argues.

“We really need to have a third wave, and it needs to happen in sub-Saharan Africa,” Desmond-Hellmann said.

china india end extreme poverty chart

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Business Insider

Why women are critical to everyone’s economic success

Today, women in sub-Saharan Africa have an average of .7 more children than what they’d ideally want, according to the new report.

“The worry, the peril is that more babies are being born in the places where it’s hardest to live a healthy, productive life,” Desmond-Hellmann said.

Nowhere will that be more true than in the African countries sitting below the Sahara desert, she said.

“By 2050, 86% of the world’s extreme poor would be in sub-Saharan Africa,” she said, “And 40% would be in just two countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.”

At the same time, these two countries are set to experience rapid population growth, more than doubling and tripling in size. Fixes for this kind of population boom are already working in other African countries further north, like Kenya.

There, nonprofit Marie Stopes International provides free contraception for teens. At first, young Kenyan girls weren’t interested in the free contraception, so Marie Stopes shifted its focus to empowering teenagers. They help young girls set goals for the future, and nudge the young women to wait to have kids until they want them, while continuing to finish school and pursuing their own dreams.

Refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo carry food distributed by the World Food Programme in the Kyangwali settlement on April 10, 2018 in Kyangwali, Uganda.

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Refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo carry food distributed by the World Food Programme in the Kyangwali settlement on April 10, 2018 in Kyangwali, Uganda.
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Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Research shows clearly that a young woman who waits until she’s finished school to have babies can have a positive, cascading effect on the health of her entire family, and country, for decades.

“Educated girls tend to work more, earn more, expand their horizons, marry and start having children later, have fewer children, and invest more in each child,” the report said. “Their children, in turn, tend to follow similar patterns, so the effect of graduating one girl sustains itself for generations.”

The Gates Foundation is also highlighting the importance of helping small-scale farmers move from subsistence farming to more focused crop production, zeroing in on growing one product, such as tomatoes, and selling it at market prices. That kind of sustainable business plan means families can make money and provide better nutrition for their kids, instead of simply relying on their own farms for food.

“One thing we know about small-holder farmers is that many of them are women,” Desmond-Hellman said. “We know when that kind of economic gain is available for women, she’ll spend money on health and education for her children.”

Even as Africa is projected to nearly double in population size by 2050, the continent could produce a wave of healthier kids, ready to solve tomorrow’s problems. But that’s only going to happen if more women get to lead the way, putting their own health and education first.

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