The Gulf’s healthcare sector has witnessed exponential growth in the past two decades. This trend is being driven by the region’s rapidly growing population and a rise in lifestyle-related diseases (NCDs), such as obesity and diabetes.
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The region’s lengthening average life expectancy is also adding strain to its under-resourced medical sector. In an effort to stave off an impending healthcare crisis, the Arabian Gulf has committed billions of dollars to building more hospitals and improving medical services.
According to research from Ardent Advisory, increased government spending drove the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) healthcare market to expand by 7.7% a year on average between 2009 and 2014, to reach $55bn. In the years to come, technology will be critical to solving the region’s serious healthcare challenges, according to experts.
Walid Tohme, partner with Strategy& and a member of the firm’s health and digital business practices, said the region was modernising its healthcare sector by digitising medical information, such as diagnostic imaging and results, providing online health information and shifting to electronic medical records (EMRs).
Injecting technology into healthcare
“The GCC is in many ways leapfrogging other parts of the world when it comes to the application of technology in healthcare,” said Tohme. “Many, if not most, healthcare providers in the GCC – public and private – are shifting to EMRs, which are providing patients with access to their own medical files.
“This patient empowerment is only going to increase. Test results, scans, medication and appointment reminders are all being pushed digitally to patients through enhanced web portals and mobile devices.”
The region has seen many apps spring up in recent months, which take direct aim at the tech healthcare market. For example, Dubai-based tech platform Healthigo allows patients to quickly search family health records, escalate emergencies, book appointments, get personalised health news and receive medication reminders.
“We believe Healthigo, as a patient-focused platform, will improve the community’s access to healthcare, drive productive lifestyles, and, in the future, fuel medical tourism,” said Anirudh Gupta, co-founder of Healthigo.
Aaron Han, head of pathology at The American Hospital, Dubai, agreed that technology was key to regional advances in healthcare. “Public and private entities are investing significant funds and [committing] people to digitising patient medical records,” he said. “A unified patient health record is part of the country’s strategic plan and within reach in the UAE.”
Han said technology was also helping “telehealth delivery” – or remote healthcare services – to transcend barriers of distance and geography. “It’s also adding value to medical practices in the GCC. Access to the world’s best medical expertise is within reach of virtually anyone with internet access,” he added.
Tohme agreed that telemedicine and its associated services, such as remote care, continuous monitoring and support, would be one of the major trends in the GCC in the coming years.
He said local technologies were already enabling patients to connect with the full range of healthcare providers – from physicians, nurses and specialists to pharmacists and therapists – in multiple ways. “Many [interactions] do not necessitate getting in a car and driving to the physical provider location,” he added.
Putting patient data into practice
Tohme predicted that the large amount of data being collected by healthcare providers would provide a goldmine for patients and the medical community in the future. “This will lead to greater patient education and involvement in their own care and treatment.”
He said there would be a growing regional emphasis on preventative healthcare through the means of diet, exercise and regular check-ups. “This will further reduce the overall burden of NCDs in the GCC, which is placing an increasing burden on the national health services. This will enable the move from curative to preventative care.”
Hichem Maya, head of industries, SAP Middle East and North Africa, said connected healthcare would enable GCC care providers to optimise costs, enhance patient care and meet national digital transformation agendas.
“Across the GCC, healthcare providers are looking to run in real time, with a digital network that can enable features such as digital patient records on tablets and personalised interaction and self-care with mobile apps, and quickly and easily connect the healthcare ecosystem for better patient support and billing,” he added.
“However, one of the major pitfalls in moving towards connected healthcare is not having the digital core to support these innovations, and also the lack of educating staff on how best to use the healthcare analytics.”
Maya said IT suppliers would play a key role in helping GCC healthcare providers adopt the technology that best meets their needs.
“In the coming years, IT channel partners will drive education on and adoption of innovations such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, machine learning and 3D printing. This will deliver new levels of patient care – with providers better able to predict healthcare issues, the success of treatments and self-care with embedded healthcare wearable devices.”
Maya said SAP had seen strong GCC success in enabling connected healthcare with customers such as Al-Mishari Hospital in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, and VPS Healthcare in the UAE.
Data privacy a potential barrier
But while the future of the GCC’s health sector looks set to be more effective and connected than ever before, Tohme warned that privacy issues were a major concern in the region.
“With increased use of social media, online patient discussion forums and cloud-based platforms, there is always a security and privacy risk relating to the storage and transmission of patient data. Practitioners must continue to adhere to patient privacy requirements,” he said.
Tohme added that technology definitely had a major role to play in the region’s wellness, but continued preference for physician-patient interaction would continue to be the foundation of medical care.
“We should be careful that these innovations do not seek to replace patient diagnosis and treatment – but are rather leveraged as tools to assist caregivers and patients in learning more about their health and treatment,” he said.