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Looking back at healthcare in 2021

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2021 was a big year for the healthcare industry as telehealth and digital innovations shaped new trends and global vaccine measures were rolled out.

COVID’s second year and counting witnessed the emergence of vaccination roll out strategies to safeguard populations against the virus. Throughout January and March, we reported on how COVID-19 vaccines became one of the most precious medications in the world and the challenge healthcare systems around the world faced in securing and distributing supplies to the population.

As the healthcare landscape evolved globally, the UAE and the wider GCC region also experienced a drastic change due to COVID-19.  The need for investment and further development of digital infrastructure and telehealth solutions, to facilitate the shift of primary care delivery away from hospitals was emphasised.

Government-led digital health initiatives drove adoption of telehealth in UAE and KSA. Frost & Sullivan’s analysis, Strategic Public-Private Partnerships Transforming the Telehealth Market in the KSA and the UAE, 2020–2025, found that telehealth is a promising model for healthcare services in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and both governments are developing robust digital health infrastructure to support telehealth services

Health insurance organisations were quick to offer telehealth services to ensure, UAE members had uninterrupted access to sound medical advice. The advancements in medical innovations such as telemedicine, wearables, precision medicine, artificial intelligence (AI) plus online prescriptions and delivery, led to a more efficient and effective way of delivering healthcare outcomes in 2021.

Throughout May, COVID-19 continued to wreak havoc in India. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, hospitals in India were fighting for beds and oxygen in response to the deadly surge in infections and the country was accounting for nearly half the coronavirus cases reported worldwide and a quarter of the deaths.

Meanwhile in June, the possibility of Sinovac and health passes to restore travel to the Southeast Asian nation, was revealed by Dr. Kuljit Singh, President, Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia.

Pfizer raced to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in record time in the previous year, and these were instrumental in saving many lives. The company also rolled out the vaccine for 12-to-15-year old's marking a significant step in the fight against the pandemic in July.

In August we reported on how vaccine tourism became popular with individuals travelling to countries to get quick access and make an appointment to get a vaccine shot. Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the Medical Tourism Association commented that, one of the biggest challenges with the COVID-19 vaccine was that it was not available everywhere in the world. Also, many people were looking to get a specific vaccine with demand for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Sotrovimab, an anti-viral treatment for COVID-19, became available for early treatment of certain categories of COVID-19 patients in the UAE following an agreement between the Abu Dhabi Department of Health, the group purchasing organisation (GPO) Rafed, and biopharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). As a result, Abu Dhabi was the first location globally to receive this drug, we reported in September.

Over the next 10 years, digital infrastructure virtual care, remote patient monitoring, and AI will account for 30 per cent of hospital investments in GCC, predicted Ricky Shah, Consulting Editor, OCO Global. Arab Health and Medlab Middle East was also confirmed for 24-27 January 2022 in September, with technology taking centre stage. Digitalisation, blockchain and Big Data are growing in prominence, and according to the Voice of the Healthcare Industry Market Outlook 2021 report produced by Omnia Health Insights, AI is the second most impactful area of tech overall, followed by robotics. 23 per cent of those surveyed from the GCC placed a much higher priority for investment in this area of new technology.

In October, WHO approved first malaria vaccine after trials in Africa. Hailed a breakthrough, it marked the beginning of striving to eradicate and eliminate malaria. The first vaccine against a parasitic disease and was five decades in the making. Dr. Alex Coutinho, former Executive Director for Partners in Health in Rwanda commented during Africa health that there is “still have a long way to go” as the first steps are to manufacture the vaccine and make it affordable. Also, as part of the United Nations General Assembly, Facebook hosted a virtual session on ‘Using Social Media to Build Confidence in Vaccines’. The session provided information on vaccine availability and how communicating about vaccines is critical to increasing their uptake worldwide.

Addressing a special session on “The role of artificial intelligence and machine learning in Patient Safety” at the three-day Patient Safety Virtual 2021 conference in November, Dr Samer Ellahham, Medical Director of Continuous Improvement, Director of Accreditation, Cleveland Clinic Caregiver, Senior Cardiovascular Consultant, Heart and Vascular Institute, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, UAE said that if integrated into health systems properly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will give healthcare workers more chance to show care and empathy.

Last year, seasonal influenza infections were at a minimal rate due to COVID-19, however the climate’s influence on viruses was discussed to be significant as most diseases have a seasonal variation, with respiratory illnesses occurring typically during the winter months. Omicron’s first cases have coincided with the flu season, with the variant being the most dominant strain in the US , accounting for over 73 per cent of new coronavirus cases less than three weeks after the first case was detected.

Rising infectious disease rates will continue to drive ME&A clinical laboratory services, according to latest research, says Medlab Middle East. The Middle East and Africa laboratory services market is expected to grow to a market value reaching US$ 7.5 billion. the next edition of Medlab Middle East which takes place at the Dubai World Trade Centre from 24-27 January 2022.

To sign off, practitioners predict that digital healthcare is here to stay and will grow exponentially within the next few years, “we have witnessed in the past years, technological innovations, particularly Artificial Intelligence (AI) will continue to influence procedures and solutions in the health sector. The sector has made advancements in robotic surgery, and this will remain one of the trends to look forward to in the coming year,” said Dr. Zbiggy Brodzinsky, Consultant Orthopedic Spine Surgeon at Valiant Clinic Hospital.

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