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How digitisation is helping the Gulf achieve its healthcare ambitions

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Technologies such as AI and wearables hold the key to stemming the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – and UK companies are bringing their innovation to the region.

The global COVID pandemic stretched the international healthcare system to its limits. Many lessons were learned as hospitals revisited their critical infrastructure, processes and procedures amid unprecedented demand.

In the last 18 months, medical organisations have had to react quickly to track COVID infections, radically scale up capacity, and treat patients remotely. All of these pressures have accelerated the adoption of digital health.

Digital health – a term that covers mobile health, e-health, telemedicine, and advanced computing sciences – has been instrumental in managing and curbing the COVID crisis. Such technologies also hold the key to relieving limited global healthcare capacity and reaching patients remotely, especially amid the international rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes and cancer.

Future-proofing regional healthcare

Healthcare companies in the Middle East are turning to high-tech solutions such as artificial intelligence (AI), wearables, blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT), to stem the rise of NCDs and future proof their healthcare offer.

According to business consulting firm Frost and Sullivan, the Middle East wearables market is expected to grow significantly over the next few years as healthcare firms begin to remotely track disease trends and monitor chronic patients’ adherence to treatment schedules.

For example, biosensors can be embedded within wearable devices to continuously monitor a patient’s progress and provide data that can be analysed and lead to greater population health insights and better patient management. 

Frost & Sullivan anticipates that utilising AI platforms across healthcare workflows could result in a 10–15 per cent regional gain in productivity in the next two to three years. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are leading the rollout of AI in the region, with a focus on the financial and public sector, particularly in administration, public utilities, and healthcare, the firm said.

AI is also set to be a cornerstone technology for the regional rise in personal diagnostics treatment, said Takudzwa Musiyarira, research analyst at Frost & Sullivan in a recent blog.

“In the wake of rising medical costs, precision diagnostics have become more important than ever as they provide personalised care to patients,” he wrote. “This means that diseases can be diagnosed more accurately, an effective treatment programme can be put in place, and continuous monitoring of the patient is made possible. When combined with other new technologies such as blockchain and IoT, the expected benefits of AI are exponential.”

Britain partners with the Gulf

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In June, the region’s leading global health event Arab Health showcased some of the world’s top digital health solutions – including many exhibitors from UK-headquartered companies.

In the last 18 months and beyond, UK digital healthcare firms have been cementing their regional presence, according to Simon Penney, Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“British companies are working with Gulf countries to help deliver their ambitious long-term healthcare ambitions. The UK is home to many pioneering digital health companies with a range of solutions, such as real-time data reporting, e-record management, self-care and remote monitoring,” Penney said.

British healthcare technology firms have honed their craft in the National Health Service (NHS) – the world’s largest single-payer universal healthcare system – and vendors say this heritage appeals to Middle Eastern healthcare clients.

“With a pedigree in medical schools and university-linked R&D centres, the UK is seen as a leader in digital healthcare,” said Jonathan Elliott, international director at IMMJ Systems – a British company that digitises legacy paper health records.

IMMJ, which currently manages around 15 NHS contracts, is currently in talks with major UAE healthcare suppliers and is looking to pilot its technology in the country this year.

“The NHS is renowned around the world and it is a real selling point for us as we pitch to regional partners,” Elliott added.

UK firms secure deals across the region

In a recent example of a major UK-UAE collaboration, Dubai’s Osteopathic Health Centre (OHC) unveiled the Middle East’s first digital health library in partnership with Britain’s ORCHA (the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps) – the world’s largest healthcare app review and distribution company.

OHC takes a holistic approach to medicine, specialising in non-invasive and manual therapies. Its new digital health library will enable around 40,000 customers in the country to access a library of health apps to support issues such as smoking cessation, mental health support, allergies and obesity.

“Digital health is an idea whose time has come, for our country and our region. Evidence is mounting year by year that apps improve outcomes,” said Nargis Raza, OHC proprietor and director. “We’ll be using our app library to recommend the best content to help patients self-manage as part of their care programmes.”

Another UK company to clinch a recent contract is In Touch with Health (ITWH), a British patient-flow management company that has secured a deal with a major Qatari hospital network to integrate its patient appointment scheduling solution into one data-rich system.

The ITWH platform currently processes over 30 million outpatient appointments annually and supports over 110 hospitals in the UK and abroad, managing all aspects of a patient’s hospital journey, from patient self-check-in to discharge and beyond for remote care.

Yara Saf, international account director at ITWH said: “We aim to deploy our solution in Qatar by the end of the year. There is a huge appetite for health technology in the region. We’re aiming to take the platform to the UAE, Kuwait and Egypt next.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabian companies are also in active discussion with Britain to partner on major projects. Digital innovators such as Helicon Health – which has its roots in University College London – are in talks with officials to bring remote monitoring technology to the Kingdom. Helicon, which is also in talks with Qatar and Bahrain, uses machine learning applied to electronic health records to help identify patients who are unwell with an acute illness but not receiving the correct treatment.

According to Penney, the UK’s history of medical innovation chimes with the Gulf region’s own ambitions for a futuristic digitised healthcare sector.

“Collaboration between the UK and the Middle East is growing rapidly. Technologies such as AI are emerging as key enablers for multiple sectors of the regional economy, including healthcare,” he said. “With strategic foresight, bolstered by a keen appetite for global technology and partnership, the Gulf is on course to become a real hub for healthcare innovation.”

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

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