AI and Health Care: A Story of Ethical Leadership
Ethical leadership and sustainability are the priorities du jour in business. In fact, many corporate leaders consider them when measuring a company’s success. But what they represent today goes beyond simply focusing on environmentally sound practices.
Terrence Kommal, M.D., YPO member and Executive Chairman of South Africa’s Medical Expert Consulting Group, knows that considering a company’s impact on people, including its employees and their families, is just as important as its impact on the environment. His commitment is real. He demonstrates it in his daily business operations.
“We have started building houses for some of our staff who come from poorer communities,” Kommal explains. “When these young individuals work, they’re not just feeding themselves, they have to feed their entire extended families — parents, cousins, nieces and nephews. And in that context, for employees who live in a house with 10-15 other people, their needs are day-to-day survival.”
To contain costs, the homes are structured as loans, though the company immediately writes it off and never seeks to recoup the funds. The goodwill these efforts establish are obvious, but the impact on the company’s growth is not to be ignored.
“Staff loyalty goes through the roof because we now consider them as people who belong to a family, a society and a community,” Kommal explains. “Their perception changes from the idea that corporation are simply here to exploit them.”
Understanding the needs of a community
Kommal has worked in the health care industry for nearly 20 years, beginning his career in the military. In South Africa, military medicine is a standalone arm of service, and Kommal was able to work his way up from a private to a commissioned officer. Ultimately, he was appointed as a Captain of the Presidential Medical Unit; he also commanded the Medical Task Team for international events including the FIFA World Cup.
In the civilian world, Kommal worked and trained as an anesthesiologist in South Africa’s public health care system. It’s a two-pronged structure that allows families to pay a flat fee for a suite of benefits, or, for those who can’t afford it, provides free services to any person in the county.
“Whether you can afford health care or not, you can walk into the public system,” Kommal says. “If you’re not well and you go to the local clinic, they will see you at some point. They will then refer you, if needed, to a local hospital. If it’s serious, you are then transferred to a regional or tertiary facility.”
By and large, Kommal adds, the system works, providing a shining example that, at least in this instance, the third world may have an advantage over the first. But for all its positive traits, South African health care is abused and overburdened, often creating a delay in services for some patients. Kommal, who has served in numerous government-run health care departments, including South Africa’s Road Accident Fund, has garnered a front-row perspective on the needs of public health care — and the importance of ethical leadership.
Where AI and tech meet health care
As an entrepreneur, Kommal’s first venture sought to close one of the largest gaps he observed while working in the public sector: the medico-legal space. Because the South African system is designed to provide care for any person currently residing within the country’s borders, it is ripe for corruption at the hands of those citing inadequate care and bringing claims against the state.
“We weren’t saying that patients weren’t entitled to damages or a claim against the state; we were saying that they should get a fair settlement,” Kommal says. “We have no interest in protecting the state against the claimant, or vice versa. Our aim is to protect what people were ethically and lawfully entitled to, in terms of the claims process.”
Improving the claims process was tantamount to reducing system abuse. To that end, Kommal and his team brought in the latest cloud-based technology and artificial intelligence —advancements that hadn’t existed in Africa before that point — to streamline a fragmented system. What once took weeks or months was transformed into a single day of service during which the needs of patients could be accurately and fairly assessed, across medical specialty.
Currently, Kommal is working to leverage AI and other technologies to decentralize health care distribution throughout South Africa. He learned early in his career that rural communities are often disconnected from care, and community health workers have trouble accessing the patients who need them most.
As Chairman of the Board of Tholwana tsa Lerato (translated as The Fruits of Love), Kommal is creating a system that runs in support of the South African public health system. Unemployed youth in rural communities will be taught how to track basic diagnostics and vital signs of at-risk patients with a device similar to a simple cell phone. The data will be captured once monthly and transferred to a cloud server. Doctors and nurses will then be alerted to any month-to-month variance, allowing them to better manage these chronic diseases on a remote basis and intervene earlier, if necessary.
Achieving business sustainability through ethical leadership
Regardless of the initiative, Kommal’s work is dedicated to the mission of business sustainability as it directly relates to ethical leadership and serving others. He believes that there needs to be a transformation of thinking — a focus on stakeholders, not just shareholders, or the bottom line.
“Sustainability comes from asking the question, ‘How is everyone in the larger ecosystem affected by our business?” Kommal says. “If you come from the automotive industry, how are the families of your staff impacted? Is there an exploitation of those who produce products for your business? What are you doing to educate those communities, whether it’s the father that’s helping extract the rubber from the trees, or the children of those families who are neglected because the parents have to work 16 to 18 hours?”
Kommal notes that embarking on ethical leadership can be an overwhelming endeavor, but he also believes that it’s easier than most assume. “You don’t have to open the matchbox and strike every match to light a fire,” he explains. “Strike one and do it well. Measure it, but don’t measure for ROI. Measure for impact and outcome and how you’re adding value to your community on a local, national and international scale. That’s where the sustainability is.”