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Envisioning the Future of Laboratory in Saudi Arabia

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AI and machine learning are creating an impact on lab digitisation, giving rise to strategic efficiencies.

The clinical laboratory sector is one of the most fundamental areas of the current healthcare value chain and it has undeniably gained importance in Saudi Arabia in recent years. Besides assisting in the identification of diseases by determining their presence, absence, and extent, laboratory tests further evaluate the effectiveness of treatments leading to improved patient outcomes and advancing community public health.

Dr. Nashat Nafouri, Chairperson of Healthcare Interest Group and the Executive Officer, Saudi Quality Council, Medical and Quality Director at FutureLab Medical Laboratories in Jeddah, tells Omnia Health how the future of medical labs in Saudi is being shaped by digitalisation and strategy. Excerpts from the interview:

As the clinical laboratory sector gains significance, what does the future of medical labs look like in Saudi Arabia?

The future for medical labs in Saudi Arabia is very promising but will be challenging and very competitive for lab services providers. The clinical laboratory sector will play vital role in advancing the quality of life of patients from many different angles in line with 2030 vision. Public private partnership initiatives are expected to enable accessibility by reducing waiting times. Several world-class institutions featuring diagnostic centres of excellence are also entering the Saudi market as major mega players, which will change the dynamics of classical and routine clinical laboratory services. Hence, the patient can comfortably select niche services to meet their personal needs.

Patients, or even healthy individuals that seek regular checkups, will be pampered in these centres with prime services designed to offer personalised options, such as an investigative or preventive test from an analytical boutique. The pandemic created and enriched a unique demand for lab home visits. The appealing nature of the service gave rise to a culture of comfort for a large segment of the population. In conclusion, the laboratory industry is reinventing itself endogenously.

Tell us about the impact of AI and machine learning on lab digitisation. How will Total Laboratory Automation and IT innovations further support this?

There are six characters rebooting the medicine and health field — 0, 1, A, C, G, and T. Digital technology has played a role in medicine since the 70s, starting with disease management that enabled diagnosis through computerised instrumentations and faster communication by mobiles. But the breakthrough of the human genome project, which reached completion in 2000, and the enormous acceleration of digitalisation, both technologies transformed medicine into a new era of disease prediction, jointly working in tandem to advance disease prevention from the gene level. We expect to understand the causes of many chronic diseases and cancers with bioinformatics and ensure better prevention and disease management with the effective utilisation of big data where labs serve as the hub for it. Laboratories are helping shape a new health economy fuelled by knowledge and innovation.

Machine learning is not new in laboratories. Lab instruments could self-diagnose themselves without any human interaction. Theragnostic, which represents imparting the right therapy at the right time and place, is here to stay. It was recently combined with the Internet of things (IoT) to make home diagnostics accessible at the tip of a finger. In the digital literacy era, I would not be surprised if each home were to have a diagnostic robot connected to a medical cloud community.

In a report, the Saudi Ministry of Defense said that clinical laboratory testing is now a “global business”. What kinds of strategies are being implemented in KSA labs to increase efficiencies and align with the business objectives of the healthcare industry, as a part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030?

The initiatives in this domain are enormous and diversified. For example, the recent government mandate on conducting genetic testing locally created immediate demands for highly specialised testing laboratories and accessibility. The COVID pandemic helped increase the number of labs that adopted molecular biology testing as a new technology platform over routine immunological testing. Now these labs need to think about utilising this platform when testing other diseases.

Compared to the public sector, laboratory operations are much more complicated in the private sector due to limited resources. However, with the introduction of a new model of care that focuses on the prevention and ease of accessibility, public private partnership initiatives, and the recent launch of the national insurance centre will provide a fundamental and dynamic shift in the supply and demand of diagnostic services. Quality, efficiency, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness will play a major role in reshaping future laboratory business and operational strategies.

Laboratory technology has generally been distinguished as the vanguard of medical advances, but leadership skills and training are just as crucial. Tell us about the concept of triangle success for future laboratories: the 3Cs and I model.

Leadership is not just a slogan for climbing the ladder fast, but it is about actions, deeds, and devotion. Leadership in the lab profession is built on accumulated wisdom alongside skillsets such as critical thinking, patience, trial and error, dedication, understanding, team play, etc. Laboratory leadership is well-rooted in medicine and became the first to launch the Laboratory Leadership Competency Framework published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019. In my opinion, seeding quality and safety culture under wise leadership will be the DNA of successful future laboratories.

The 3Cs (competency, confidence, and consistency) and I (intellectual property) models were developed to restructure healthcare algorithms on safety and quality culture, which is beyond the accreditation compliance and may take decades to build a strong foundation.

With the 12 quality system essentials (QSE) unified standards, laboratories worldwide maintain consistency. With repeated peer reviews in different accreditation models whether national or international, laboratory workforce shall build confidence and improve competency in the long run. The intellectual aspect can be ensured by using a unique leadership approach and management style, which the laboratory could patent to increase its development business growth and Return on Investment (ROI).

 

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