The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in major disruption to the mechanics of most economies. According to a Baker McKenzie report, the global outbreak has been a wake-up call, forcing businesses to mobilise rapidly, set up crisis management mechanisms and build supply chain resilience.
One such business is Leader Healthcare Group, an international medical equipment supplier headquartered in the UAE.
In episode 3 of our new Patient Talk Podcast, we spoke with Global CEO Sukhdeep Sachdev to hear how his business responded to the pandemic in the UAE and globally, including challenges faced, and how he believes healthcare will look going forward.
In a video from early this year you talked about cutting-edge technologies showcased at Arab Health 2020, such as AI. That was before COVID. Have your priorities changed significantly since the outbreak? How has Leader Healthcare Group responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?
You are right, early this year Leader Healthcare showcased cutting-edge technologies at Arab Health 2020. These included the AI-based analytics tool for radiologists called CARPL - The CARING Analytics Platform.
That was before COVID, in January/February. By March 2020, pandemic control measures were implemented across the world.
The need was for field hospital solutions that could be deployed quickly and of course, large volumes of personal protective equipment. The health authorities were in communication round the clock, to alert about supplies that are needed in the next 24-48 hours.
It was a time to demonstrate the ‘we are in this together’ attitude, in real time. So, every employee at Leader Healthcare was available 24/7 to hospitals, clinics, health authorities, suppliers. Purchase orders were being received at 11 pm and orders delivered at 8 am next morning.
A task team was set up at Leader Healthcare – for rapid sourcing, quality verification and express shipping of products that are needed ex-stock by hospitals and clinics. Fly-by-night operators offering sub-standard products had to be quickly identified and weeded out.
Between March 2020 and June 2020, Leader Healthcare, its suppliers and partners set aside the core portfolio in order to support national priorities.
Amidst this scenario, Leader Life Sciences was launched in May 2020, as per the strategic roadmap for Leader Healthcare Group.
Post COVID-19, the priorities have changed in the sense that there are more projects being executed simultaneously - everything that was planned before COVID 19 plus strengthening the supply chain for new revenue streams generated by COVID 19.
You operate in three territories – have you had to focus on any one region in particular in the pandemic? How does the situation compare in each for your business?
Leader Healthcare Group operates in three territories – the GCC countries, Asia Pacific and South East Asia. A shift in focus can be irreversibly detrimental, so that’s not an option. Each territory has a leadership team that drives the business, so the focus is maintained.
Pandemic control measures in each of the territories were slightly different, and so the business situation differed accordingly.
For example, one of the federal government’s early moves in Australia was to radically expand the citizens’ access to telehealth. This allowed patients to have consultations via videoconference or telephone, rather than in person. A survey reveals that 99% of GP practices in Australia now offer telehealth services.
The GCC countries have responded aggressively to the spread of COVID-19 by deploying mobile field hospitals, strengthening crisis management infrastructure and increased investment in digital government services.
In each territory, the need of the hour has been creative thinking, speed of execution, supply chain management, and cash flow to maintain ex-stock availability of products deemed as a national priority.
The network of global connections built over a decade by Leader Healthcare served the need of the hour in the respective countries, and we are thankful to our suppliers for being a source of strength.
Have you been seeing a spike in demand for any of your products/services during the pandemic, and from where?
A spike in demand for air purification systems and HEPA filters was observed during the pandemic. It came as a surprise because the World Health Organisation states the coronavirus is spread by large respiratory droplets released during coughing or sneezing, which fall quickly to the floor. This simply means that hospitals and health authorities were committed to minimising the risk of infection. As a resident, it is most reassuring.
Do you see technology playing a big part in COVID-19 responses worldwide? I’ve been hearing about AI-assisted imaging in COVID-19 testing, for example, but with varying results.
You are referring to the AI-assisted CT Imaging Analysis For COVID-19 Screening developed by The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team (NCPERT), operating in China.
Now, for the diagnosis of COVID-19, RT-PCR test is routinely used. This test can take up to 2 days to complete and serial testing may be required to rule out the possibility of false negative results.
CT scans are quicker and have shown a higher sensitivity than real-time RT-PCR. However, some patients have normal radiological findings at early stages of COVID-19. False positives and false negatives in imaging further compromise the eligibility of imaging as a diagnostic tool for COVID-19.
However, when artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms integrate chest CT findings with clinical symptoms, exposure history and laboratory testing, the possibility to rapidly diagnose patients who are positive for COVID-19 becomes a reality.
Having said that, the artificial intelligence algorithm is only as good as the data it feeds upon. This is the reason for varying results that you mention. The good news is that AI algorithms get better at pattern recognition across time.
In a scenario where suspected patients may be waiting for RT–PCR test results, AI-assisted CT Imaging Analysis may be deployed as a triage tool.
This would be helpful from the emergency and crisis management perspective. In other words, this would be helpful from the larger, public health perspective, to ensure patient isolation and containment of the disease.
Because, during outbreak of a highly infectious disease, there is a risk of person-to-person transmission, the hospitals have increased workloads and a shortage of beds to hospitalise suspected patients.
What are your views on the future of telemedicine, seeing as it’s growing in popularity in the pandemic and patients seem to like it?
The terms telemedicine, telehealth and telematics are being used interchangeably.
Assuming the layman’s definition, that telemedicine means remote consultations with caregivers, the surge in telemedicine has been driven by the immediate goal of avoiding exposure to COVID-19.
As you have mentioned, it’s grown in popularity during the pandemic and patients seem to like it.
The potential impact of telemedicine is convenience, improved access to care, and a more efficient healthcare system. However, the shift brings a set of challenges.
Telemedicine requires new ways of working, integration of technology, and a re-imagining of the patient-caregiver experience.
Physicians have mixed sentiments towards telemedicine – they are fascinated and intimidated by it at the same time. The pandemic situation has been a catalyst that has precipitated acceptance and adoption.
However, there is a lack of framework for reimbursement, covered services and workflow integration, these are persistent challenges.
Also, 5G networks are unable to exploit the full potential of telemedicine. Satellite-enabled data transfer or 7G will tap into the power of telemedicine - because it overrides the limitations of data capacity, geographical coverage or bandwidth.
What changes are you expecting to see in healthcare after COVID-19 – can we expect to see a more patient-centric ‘culture’ emerge? Will disruption become the norm?
The digital development accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic will have far reaching effects across policies - policies for patients, healthcare providers and regulatory bodies.
COVID-19 has firmly established the need for a collaborative, scalable, and agile digital healthcare infrastructure. This requires disruption, urgent dismantling of digital adoption barriers.
Telemedicine platforms, VR and AR for immersive patient-doctor communications, machine learning and AI will serve to create a patient centric culture and strengthen crisis management infrastructure simultaneously.
Do you have plans to do anything differently post-COVID 19?
Yes, Leader Healthcare Group plans to remain open 24/7, 365 days a year. We did this during the crisis, it has generated immense value across stakeholder relationships. The infrastructure is being put in place for the same.