IBM and Metropolitan Health–one of South Africa’s largest financial services and healthcare companies–recently announced Africa’s first commercial application of IBM’s Watson Engagement Advisor (“Watson”).  Watson is a potentially revolutionary cognitive computing application that can “comprehend” a question posed to it in natural language, process relevant data equivalent to about one million books, and provide a tailored, evidence-based response to the query, all in approximately three seconds.  In South Africa, the application will function as a “virtual coach” to supplement the healthcare advice provided by Metropolitan Health’s Customer Service Agents, who assist approximately three million clients annually.  The IBM application is currently being used in over 25 countries around the world to provide services in a variety of industries, but its ability to generate personalized, fast, and comprehensive healthcare information could make it particularly impactful within the African healthcare sector.  

Africa shoulders a disproportionate share of the world’s disease burden, and cognitive computing platforms like Watson could enable healthcare providers to better surmount the financial, geographical, educational and human resource obstacles that currently limit African’s access to healthcare.  Watson conveys information through a cloud or mobile device, thereby giving clients access to Big Data that can assist them in making informed healthcare decisions at any time and in any location equipped with a mobile or cloud connection.  Cognitive analytical platforms learn from experiences and actually process information faster as they gain new information.  As a result, the consistent usage of Watson should eventually allow the platform to proactively share healthcare information with clients and to anticipate client concerns, consequently shortening the number of visits required to a health facility and potentially expediting the treatment process.

The use of mobile devices and applications to fight disease and provide medical advice in Africa is not new; telemedicine services that connect Africans to doctors abroad, and the use of mobile apps to track contagious diseases like the Ebola virus have all been successfully relied upon.  However, the adaptability of cognitive computing platforms could open new possibilities for healthcare interactions, particularly if these platforms became adept at “speaking” multiple languages. 

In addition to launching Watson in South Africa, IBM will open a global Watson headquarters in New York, create five new Watson Client Experience Centers around the world, and develop a Watson platform that “speaks” Spanish.  The field of cognitive analytics is still in its early stages of development, yet these announcements clearly indicate IBM’s intentions to become a leader in the global cognitive computing industry, and the company’s confidence in computer analytics’ ability to transform client services around the globe.