Computer-Aided Cancer Care

David Moinina Sengeh is a soft-spoken Sierra Leonean who began working with IBM in 2016 after earning his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sengeh’s first project at IBM was with a team of researchers who deployed and evaluated a decision support system to help a district health management team in Sierra Leone during the post-Ebola recovery period. He now leads the healthcare team in Johannesburg.

“We want to develop solutions that we can deploy,” Sengeh says. “There’s a fine line between pushing state-of-the-art results through innovation and building tools that will actually have impact.”

This kind of consideration is key. According to World Health Organization figures, Kenya—population 48 million—had just 12 registered oncologists in 2014. Ethiopia—population 102 million—had only four. A large part of the problem is “brain drain” (i.e., qualified doctors leaving to practice in places like India, where there are better facilities and pay).

One of the flagship projects being worked on is a “cancer guidelines navigator,” which is being designed in partnership with medical specialists around the continent, IBM Health Corps and the American Cancer Society. The plan is to analyze data input into such a tool to explore courses of treatment based on standardized guidelines and global best practices. The solution is designed to assist practitioners with advice based on local context.

“There’s little point recommending courses of treatment that aren’t available or that require extra spending,” Sengeh explains. “We’re trying to build and deploy solutions that can save time and money and help people make better decisions.”

Sengeh and his colleagues are aiming for a comprehensive solution by integrating data collection platforms with analytical tools that can inform patient care. Many sub-Saharan nations don’t have a national cancer registry. Even where they do exist—such as in South Africa—it can take five years for records to be manually added. Digitizing and improving this process will be vital to future research.