As Saudi embarks on Vision 2030, the country’s healthcare system is set to be a radically different landscape over the coming years as digital transformation and a major revision of goals and policies takes the country into the future. The ambitious plans for the nation’s health and well-being are already underway with a complex roadmap of reform on the agenda to ensure that Saudi Arabia is among the world’s leading healthcare nations by the time Vision 2030 takes fruition.
The population of the country continues to grow. It is expected to increase to 39.5 million in mid-2030, rising from 33.5 million in mid-2018, but the government has been faced with a rising number of challenges in its healthcare system.
In 2015, residents from overseas amounted to 30 per cent of the population of the Kingdom and as the country continues to attract international businesses, foreign direct investment and international tourism, this will continue to rise.
The Healthcare Transformation Strategy, managed by the Ministry of Health’s Vision Realisation Office (VRO), draws a roadmap towards overcoming these challenges in line with international standards, and has become a major pillar of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan, supported by institutions including the Ministry of Health, Saudi Health Council, King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, Saudi Food and Drug Authority, The Saudi Red Crescent Authority, and the Ministry of Education. The VRO has laid out key themes to direct policy such as financial reforms, workforce development, digital transformation and provider reform.
The Health Sector Transformation Programme was launched during 2022 to ensure continued development of healthcare services in the country and focus efforts in this vital sector. The coronavirus pandemic was one of the first major focuses of the Health Sector Transformation Programme, feeding into the response to the health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic as well as overcoming the crisis and its challenges.
Some of the major challenges the programme aims to address are the rates of avoidable injury and non-communicable disease that remain high by regional and international standards. There are also goals to reduce preventable mortality and avoidable morbidity in both the working and elderly populations, aiming to raise life expectancy from 75 to 80 years by 2030. Specific areas of concern include heart disease, stroke, diabetes mellitus, respiratory disease, mental health, road traffic accidents, and congenital diseases.
The health sector has already achieved many accomplishments such as improving the quality and efficiency of health services and facilitating access with a focus on digital transformation. It also launched a package of applications such as Sehhaty and Mawid, while increasing service coverage across all regions of Saudi Arabia.
Technology is a major driver as Saudi moves into this new era of technology-driven solutions making healthcare more accessible to all. In 2020, more than 67 million appointments were booked through the Mawid app while 8.6 million medical consultations were provided through the Sehatty app and the 937-call centre.
Saudi Arabia also ranked first in the Arab world in the 2021 World Happiness Report, produced by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and 21st globally. The annual report, which scores countries globally on the health and happiness of their populations, is seen as a barometer for prosperity and a key indicator of a nation.
The Health Transformation Programme will work on enabling comprehensive transformation in the sector and restructuring it into a comprehensive, effective and integrated system that can address key challenges such as lack of access to medications, inconsistent delivery of care and lack of consistent clinical guidelines.
A fundamental focus of the programme is boosting public health and disease prevention, in addition to improving access to health services through optimal coverage, comprehensive and equitable geographical distribution, and expanding the provision of e-health services.
Rates of avoidable injury and non-communicable disease remain high by regional and international standards. While Saudi Arabia has made notable progress in improving the health of its population over recent decades, particularly in areas of child and maternal mortality and the reduction of communicable disease, areas of concern now include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, respiratory disease, mental health, road traffic accidents and congenital diseases, all of which are manageable.
One of the factors to address is the outbreak of communicable diseases, with a focus on sub-areas such as managing contagious diseases at Hajj or following man-made and natural disasters.
The Ministry of Health notes that primary care is a key focus moving forward with investments being carried out across the Kingdom to enhance the distribution of secondary and tertiary hospitals and associated resources.
Steps will be taken forward to augment the capacity in extended care services such as rehabilitation, long-term care and home care. Greater distribution of services will be made available across the Kingdom to ensure those in remote areas get wider access to care options.
Financially, the health system will also support the containment of public expenditure and the diversification of the Saudi economy, as per the Vision 2030 plan. This is needed to address the risk of long-term reductions in the price of crude oil and the impact that will have on public revenues. Attracting investment into the sector will be a key goal moving into the next phase to align with wide-ranging reforms.
As the system moves forward, it will be a key priority to have more staff to match the population size and recruit a larger number of Saudis that can take healthcare into the future as it moves into a new era of digitisation, offering hope for the betterment of the country’s people, alongside the implementation of more unified and digital systems.
However, the number of Saudi healthcare professionals has risen by 65 per cent since the launch of the program, marking a new wave of talent to take the vision forward. Saudi Arabia’s new holding company appointed by the government to take over healthcare services, the Health Holding Company (HHC), has a broad-ranging brief as it embarks on the task of digitising and advancing the Kingdom’s healthcare system.
Taking over from tasks once done by the Ministry of Health, the HHC will focus on providing medical services and care via upcoming health clusters, a set of independent companies that focus on specialist services.
On the ground, there are many achievements among the population that speak volumes about the successes of the programme. With the top-down encouragement of sport from access to sport in local areas to bringing international sporting championships to the Kingdom, there is a fresh push to get the country into a new, more active generation.
New data shows that weekly sports participation rates have risen by 37 per cent between 2015 and 2019 with a 149 per cent increase in female participation. More than 130,000 people take part in sports regularly now, reflecting a new push towards a healthy, active nation.
New health insurance for pilgrims has also been a major part of the country’s developments across not only health but the tourism sector, helping streamline and enhance the pilgrim experience, along with the lessons learnt from the pandemic. With new procedures, Saudi Arabia hopes to welcome 30 million Umrah pilgrims each year by 2030.
Further achievements have seen the patients receiving emergency medical care within four hours of arrival increase from 26 per cent in 2016 to 87 per cent in 2020, a huge point of pride for the system as it evolves and advances.
This has all not gone unnoticed, with satisfaction in hospital services increasing from 81.5 per cent in 2019 to 84.06 per cent in 2020. Satisfaction in primary care services also increased from 73 per cent in 2018 to 80.52 per cent in 2020 while life expectancy increased from 72.6 years in 2000 to 75 years in 2018, all reflective of the wider systemic changes across the board.
Moving forward, primary healthcare continues to be a key focus to ensure greater provision and consistency across the country, along with greater supplies of rehabilitation, long-term, and home care services. A great focus is placed on raising the quality of patient care, with standardisation plans afoot, which will be aided by greater digitalisation methodology that will in turn support the quantification and management of resources, activity levels, product quality, and performance.
These changes are already being noted internationally, as a recent report by the European Center for Digital Competitiveness ranked the country second in the world to have continually invested in digital infrastructure.
Consultants PWC also highlighted that since the establishment of a National Digital Transformation Unit, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s public and private sectors have invested almost US$15 billion into information and communications technology infrastructure.
Experts are praising developments. Samer AbuGhazaleh, Chairman of the healthcare council at Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, told MEED: “Through Vision 2030, the Saudi Health Ministry has taken the bold step to shift from being both the regulator and the operator to being just a regulator and gradually assigning the operations to the private sector.”
Overall, these positive developments show the country is primed for foreign investment with privatisation targets and demand drivers prompting new market opportunities in the Kingdom for private players and healthcare investors alike, major private healthcare players such as Saudi German Health, Dr. Sulaiman Al-Habib Medical Group and King’s College Hospital already announcing plans to open or expand services in the Kingdom, forecasting growth in demand over time.
Ministry of Health KSA