The increasing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and an ageing population, is creating a global healthcare crisis. Living longer is associated with increased health challenges, at the cost of high medical care, and putting pressure on the limited resources available. Rising pressure to curtail healthcare costs, while managing these chronic diseases, is becoming a serious concern for governments and health authorities globally.
In the Middle East, NCDs have been growing in prevalence due to citizens of the region adopting more sedentary, unhealthy and westernised lifestyles. According to the International Diabetes Federation, Saudi Arabia and the UAE ranked 10th and 12th respectively in the prevalence of diabetes globally in 2018. As such, it has become more important to track disease trends and monitor chronic patients’ adherence to treatment schedules and recovery progress.
Technology is constantly evolving across the globe, adapting to current challenges in a myriad of industries. The healthcare industry has not been immune to this transformation, with medical and digital technologies assisting in the mitigation and prevention of both communicable and NCDs. Below is a look at five trends that are set to transform the current healthcare landscape.
1) Role of AI in augmenting healthcare workflows and decision making
Across all regions in the world, AI-based cognitive technologies are proving to be most useful for drug discovery and research, clinical decision support, and medical imaging and diagnostics capabilities. Key use cases, such as elimination of unnecessary procedures and costs; in-patient care and hospital management; patient data and risk analytics; claims processing; and optimising drug discovery processes, represent more than 80 per cent of the workflow market contribution.
Frost & Sullivan anticipates operationalising AI platforms across select healthcare workflows would result in a 10–15 per cent gain in productivity in the next two to three years. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been leading the rollout of AI in the region, with a focus on the financial and public sector, particularly in administration, public utilities, and healthcare.
2) A shift in public policy
By volume, Saudi Arabia is expected to see the majority of benefits of AI; however, the UAE is seeing the bulk of the implementation in the region, with the highest investment and projects per capita. As GCC countries pursue economic diversification (from oil towards services), the healthcare services industry will emerge as a high growth alternative in the region. Key strategies are being implemented by these countries that aim at improving their technological capabilities through AI.
An example is the UAE, which launched its first AI strategy in October 2017, with the healthcare target being to drastically reduce NCDs and other dangerous diseases by 2031. The country aims to become the global hub for AI and its governance by 2031 and has set up a ministry solely focused on the technology. The Dubai Health Authority (DHA) also introduced a smart home care project in November 2018, which involves patient monitoring as part of its DHA Strategy 2016–2021. This programme ensures home-bound patients can be monitored effectively and efficiently from their homes, without the need to visit the health facility after treatment or a procedure. AI will be useful in mining the data, achieving greater insights through analysis.
3) Diagnostics through multiple technological solutions
Within healthcare, the sectors which have received much attention from innovators are remote diagnostics and patient consultation. The UAE start-up technology company, Quanterium Blockchain Solutions has been one of the principal innovators in the country, using AI and Big Data, Internet of medical things (IoMT), blockchain, robotics as well as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), with solutions such as 3D diagnostics, patient records and other healthcare management platforms. These are in line with the global trends, putting the region as a future leader in this space.
In the wake of rising medical costs, precision diagnostics has thus become more important than ever as it provides personalised care to patients, particularly chronic ones. This means that diseases can be diagnosed more accurately, an effective treatment programme can be put in place, and continuous monitoring of the patient made possible. This essentially improves the quality of care that a patient can ever receive, leading to better health outcomes and increased life expectancy.
Recently, the majority of health technology start-ups in the region have been focused on radiology solutions, with innovators designing various algorithms that use deep learning to interpret medical images, thereby accurately diagnosing diseases such as breast cancer and tuberculosis on X-rays. Global consensus is that these solutions have an accuracy of over 98 per cent and are not prone to errors that can be found with diagnostics through the human eye.
Furthermore, diagnoses can be made within minutes, cutting down on waiting times for the transfer of the captured images to a radiologist in a different location from where the radiological image was captured. With radiologists in short supply in parts of the region and the developing world, this is good news for its overall healthcare vision, expanding opportunities for radiological telemedicine in these countries.
4) Wearables to improve patient experience
The Middle East’s wearables market is expected to grow significantly over the next few years, working with AI to track NCDs and other vital signs. Biosensors embedded within these devices continuously monitor a patient’s progress, while building a database of information through Big Data that can be analysed in multiple ways, leading to greater population health insights and better patient management.
With one of the highest prevalence of diabetes in the world, Saudi Arabians can realise massive benefits by curbing growth of the disease through wearables and remote patient monitoring.
5) Focus on the future
Spanish-based MedLab Media Group (MMG) which created the MedsBla application is working with both the private and public sectors in Saudi Arabia to develop various customised AI solutions using natural language processing. The MedsBla application is an encrypted communication platform for medical professionals using AI to aid their decision making. With over 100,000 users globally since its launch in late 2018, this looks to be a fruitful partnership for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
Digital health technologies have been gaining momentum over the past few years and history suggests that exponential growth in the application of technologies such as AI, Big Data, blockchain and IoMT will be seen over the next decade, impacting almost every facet of our lives.
AI has emerged as a key technology applicable to multiple sectors of the economy, and various applications. When combined with other new technologies such as blockchain and IoMT, the expected benefits are exponential.
With a significant amount of groundwork and investment put in by Middle Eastern governments and private companies, the region will join the ranks of the top Western countries in healthcare innovation within the next decade.