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Digitalisation of healthcare in GCC

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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.

Digital’ and ‘healthcare’ are terms that are becoming increasingly intertwined in the 21st century. The separation of the physical place from the delivery of healthcare services has become all the more pertinent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many healthcare organisations unable to treat both COVID and non-COVID patients in the same place.

Expanding access to quality healthcare services is a key global policy initiative, linked to Sustainable Development Goal 3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all, at all ages.” This is particularly the case among the GCC countries, with each one making healthcare a cornerstone of both their national development strategies and their investment attraction agendas.

But what do we mean by digital healthcare? It’s a nebulous term that covers patient-facing and back-office elements that are increasingly touching our lives.

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The GCC has generally embraced the innovation and technological advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and this is prevalent in the healthcare sector too. Over the next 10 years, digital infrastructure virtual care, remote patient monitoring, and Artificial Intelligence will account for 30 per cent of hospital investments in the region. Much of this activity will come through private players; over the last 10 years, there were at least 74 VC investments into digital health related innovations targeting the Middle East Market, including Okadoc, an appointment booking platform, which secured the largest health tech Series A funding in the Middle East.

Innovation is already here; the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular, are harnessing digital health solutions across the healthcare value chain to provide better services to patients.

In the UAE, more than 50 per cent of hospitals use IoT-based solutions and 90 per cent of doctors use smartphones and medical apps to provide services to their patients. The UAE will also likely become the regional hub for robotic surgery by 2030.

Saudi Arabia, powered by the Vision 2030 strategic plan and a growing population, is investing SR250 billion on healthcare infrastructure by 2030 – up to 50 per cent is expected to be in digital solutions and there is an expectation of increasing private sector involvement.

Even the smaller GCC countries know this is a key area of growth. Bahrain’s Economic Development Board, for example, lists foreign direct investment in healthcare (including digital health solutions) as a priority sector, and its medical devices market will increase by 25 per cent to 30 per cent in 2021 as the number of elective surgical procedures increases. Healthcare digitisation spending will likely reach US$600 million by 2025.

This is all driven by evolving patient attitudes and expectations of the type of care they receive. Virtual care, enabled by telehealth, is expected to become the ‘new normal’ in this region. Companies like the UAE’s Health at Hand, which connects patients with regional doctors through virtual consultations, are being actively integrated into the supply chain.

While healthcare spending in the region has traditionally been dominated by governments, privatisation will increase. Couple this with ongoing efforts to digitise the healthcare value chain, and there is ample opportunity for innovative private players to thrive in the GCC.

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Ricky Shah

This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today.

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