While governments in the developed world are looking at healthcare technologies or healthtech as a means to reduce costs, in the UAE, the government has stepped up its focus on leveraging healthtech and smart healthcare to promote on time and integrated healthcare delivery for improving patient outcomes. In particular, on top of the government’s agenda is the need to tackle an outbreak of lifestyle diseases that are putting stress on the nation’s healthcare systems.
Public-private collaboration and coordination is key to the UAE achieving its strategic smart healthcare goals. Helping the government in the delivery of integrated healthcare delivery are a group of healthtech companies that are trying to leverage the latest technologies including artificial intelligence and machine learning in integrated healthcare delivery. Today, the UAE is in the early stages of extracting value from telemedicine, blockchain, artificial intelligence, cloud technology and mobile technology to bolster integrated healthcare delivery.
Currently, the UAE accounts for 26 percent of the total healthcare spend by the GCC — and is ranked among the top 20 countries in the world in healthcare spending with $1,200 per capita spend on healthcare.
“The UAE’s health regulators increasingly consider the adoption of new smart technologies to modernise its healthcare ecosystem,” says Richard Stolz, Associate Director – Global Strategy Group, KPMG Lower Gulf in an interview with International Finance. The country is predicted to add an additional $182 billion to its economy by 2035 on the back of accelerated AI adoption, further adding to its goal of becoming a local medical tourism hub.
Tackling the lifestyle disease epidemic
The incidence of chronic and lifestyle diseases are reaching epidemic levels in the Middle East and the UAE is not different. The UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031 is particularly focused on the use of AI tools to reduce chronic diseases in addition to developing algorithms to reduce the processing time for x-ray scans.
Health experts have warned about a surge in lifestyle diseases in the UAE. According to the 360 Well-being Survey conducted by Cigna Corporation last year, heart disease and high blood pressure are set to increase in the country. The study showed that nearly 30 percent of the population suffers from heart disease, while 32 percent of them have high blood pressure attributed to stress. For that reason, 28 percent of respondents use wearable technology for heart health and 43 percent said that their companies have set up workplace wellness programmes
In fact, the Dubai Health Authority has carried out many AI-driven proofs of concepts and the results have been impressive. For example, the DHA-operated Dubai Diabetes Centre conducted a proof of concept project using AI to detect diabetic retinopathy. The project was run in cooperation with a healthtech startup Artelus. It appears that the system requires only 10 minutes to detect diabetic retinopathy from the time of patient test until physician’s review of the test results, as opposed to four working days.
According to international diabetes treatment standards, 14 retinal images are required per diabetic — and there are more than 1 million diabetics in the country. By numbers, it needs more than 50 eye specialists working full-time to interpret 14 million images per year. But it is possible to accurately identify diabetic retinopathy and other ophthalmology-related issues with the help of a deep learning system (DLS) using AI.
For that reason, the DHA launched its Innovation and Artificial Intelligence strategy which seeks to use AI and robotics to automate the healthcare process. This strategy will be the cornerstone of all DHA’s projects, initiatives and development programmes. The emirate is also testing neuro bands to detect strokes and flow cell sensors which are designed to alert sudden drops in vitals of critical patients.
The implementation and outcomes of these transformational technologies is anticipated to impact thousands of people in the country creating a more sophisticated healthcare system — which is in line with the UAE Vision 2021.
Innovation jointly driven by public and private sectors
While local governments in the UAE are interested in piloting niche smart healthcare technologies as soon as they become popular in the developed world, the private sector, especially healthtech companies provide the key technology components and inputs to make integrated healthcare delivery a reality.
Last year, Smart Dubai launched a new AI system in collaboration with the Dubai Health Authority and IBM. The system allows physicians to predict patients’ conditions by tracking blood pressure, temperature and the pulse among other vital signs. A pilot project was carried out on thousands of patients across Rashid Hospital, Latifa Hospital, Dubai Hospital, and Hatta Hospital.
The AI system was found to have enhanced precision. It was trained to process those patients’ data and offer a comprehensive reading of their medical conditions. As part of the process, the data was fed into the system and then, it predicted the patient’s medical progress and suggested necessary precautions.
The trial showed that the system detected patients’ deteriorating health conditions anywhere between an hour to 20 hours in advance — with 90 percent to 98 percent accuracy. The AI system demonstrated advanced capabilities of determining the exact moment when a patient’s health condition is likely to deteriorate from the time of exiting the intensive care unit.
The Dubai Health Authority, the four hospitals, and most importantly the patients are set to benefit from this sophisticated AI system. First, its high potential to save patient lives by extracting data for pre-emptive detection of critical conditions is vital to medical care and patient care. Second, hospitals will be able to efficiently manage human resources, while enhancing the performance of medical teams. The data generated from the AI system is proved to offer profound insights into patients’ conditions which are usually produced from years of experience in the medical field.
Healthcare robots are a revolution. In fact, the Ministry of Health and Prevention launched a robotic surgeries programme which is specialised in gynaecology and obstetrics. The programme is the first of its kind in the UAE fostering scientific innovation in healthcare delivery.
Because technological assistance in surgeries is vital, significant efforts have been made by both public and private sectors to introduce the latest robotics. Their enhanced visualisation and high degree of dexterity are anticipated to help surgeons conduct surgeries accurately.
Rashid Hospital in collaboration with the DHA will start using robotic technology to perform knee replacement surgeries in the future. A specialised team of doctors from Rashid Hospital have undergone training in this field and are expected to use this technology in ortho trauma surgeries. The hospital has already deployed the three-in-one system, otherwise known as O-Arm, which is a 2D or 3D imaging system designed to suit surgical requirements. It is proven that the system enhances patient care during hospitalisation and post-surgical hospital stay, resulting in faster recovery, minimum incisions, reduced pain and blood loss, lower need for blood transfusion and reduces basic scarring.
The DHA also emphasises the importance of 3D printing technology. Early this year, it opened a 3D Printing Lab at its Innovation Centre to assist medical professionals with patient-specific anatomical models. In turn, these models will support extensive preoperative analysis and improve patient communication across all DHA hospitals.
Healthtech startups drive integrated healthcare
Healthtech startups in the UAE play a key role in bringing the delivery of integrated healthcare closer to patients while optimising costs. Specialised in telemedicine services, UAE healthtech startup Health at Hand has developed its own proprietary apps that allow patients and doctors to connect through videos.
In an interview with International Finance, Dubai-based telehealth startup Health at Hand CEO Charlie Barlow points out that queuing algorithms will take patients into a virtual meeting room while doctors examine their medical notes. After the consultation comes to a close, the patients will receive their diagnosis report and a prescription if required, which can be delivered to their location in Dubai within an hour.
For both payers and insurers, Health at Hand alleviates the need for unnecessary consultation visits and associated tests. “Being able to offer sick-notes, eprescriptions, ereferrals and laboratory tests through our apps has set us apart from our competitors. We have our own built-in Electronic Medical Record system to geolocate patients before offering drug delivery. This is what has led us to become one of the most sophisticated telehealth platforms in the MENA market,” Barlow explains.
The UAE government has realised the need to support telehealth initiatives. “The UAE’s major health regulators are progressively developing an understanding of the value proposition telehealth solutions present and how they can be implemented most effectively throughout the UAE,” KPMG’s Stolz tells International Finance.
The changes healthtech startups bring in the UAE are transforming the delivery of primary healthcare with a more integrated approach of healthcare delivery while closing loopholes for ethical malfeasance. “We intend to stop corruption that is inherent in healthcare systems including the overprescribing of medicine,” Barlow says. “As an independent company we have no vested interest in over-treating patients. We store patient data with the highest level of security as per the DHA guidelines.”
Other startups are using AI-based models to create unified and intergrated platforms of healthcare delivery. For example, Dubai-based healthtech startup HeyDoc! is building a unified and integrated healthcare platform that uses AI to help with detection and triage which is also integrated with wearable devices. “This will help to understand the problem by continuously learning about patients’ health and proactively monitoring them,” says CEO and co-founder Ahmad Al-Hidiq tells International Finance.
HeyDoc! is also democratising healthcare by increasing medical accessibility to patients despite their circumstances. “We have launched an initiative called Salamtak! that aims to provide people in refugee camps, developing countries and rural areas with free healthcare advice through our partner NGOs and government entities powered by an open source version of HeyDoc!,” Ahmad Al-Hidiq explains.
Dubai’s smart healthcare model and its subsequent effects
Four years ago, Dubai launched the Dubai Health Strategy 2021 with four approaches, six objectives, 15 programmes and 93 initiatives. The profound effect of this strategy is that it is delivering the highest quality of medical care for chronic diseases, promoting early detection and raising awareness in the country.
The effort began in 2013, when the DHA launched the Dubai Smart Healthcare Model to implement applications and advanced technology such as telemedicine in hospitals. “Since 2017 there have now been two updates to the DHA telehealth regulations and we have attended numerous roundtable discussions to help modernise the offering around telehealth,” Barlow tells International Finance.
It is apparent that Dubai’s healthcare policy makers pursue a proactive agenda to seek collaboration with private sector participants through public private partnership models, adds Stolz of KPMG. The Smart Healthcare Model also offers guidelines to help healthcare providers to become more automated. Many hospitals in the UAE are embracing this model.
In fact, it was reported that Dr. Sulaiman Habib Hospital in Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) has started electronic collection and storage of patients’ biometric data. Also, the hospital’s pilot project used Google Glass to communicate with doctors in the field.
This model helps hospitals to benefit from a prototype SmartDesk application using touchscreen technology. The first facet of the model allows patients to check-in using an ID card, while doctors can fully access patients’ profile and history. The idea is to not only enhance customer experience but also deliver sophisticated healthcare services. The second facet constitutes smart apps with customer-centric features, while the third facet focuses on smart operations including use of advanced technologies to boost efficiency and facilitate internal operations.
The demand for smart healthcare services is only seen rising in Dubai where the population reached 3.35 million last year — and is expected to reach between 4.96 million to 5.73 million by 2030.
Public-private collaboration key to UAE’s smart healthcare future
The private sector has a key role to play in meeting the demands of smart healthcare in the UAE as elsewhere in the Middle East. Meeting the demands of integrated healthcare for the population depends upon close collaboration between the government and the private sector. “It is of utmost importance to have “continuous collaboration between government policy makers and the private health sector to develop and implement advancements in healthcare technology in the UAE,” Stolz tells International Finance.
However, healthtech startups in the UAE might, however, face challenges in scaling up because of challenges in the healthcare and entrepreneurial ecosystem. According to Ahmad Al Hidiq, funding opportunities are sufficient in healthcare services and facilitations such as portals and booking platforms. However, they are inadequate when it comes to innovations around triage, patient records, wearable devices, vital analytics and other innovative technologies. This gap can be bridged if “investments and partnerships with hospital groups and research centres that closely work with governments and established investors open the door for entrepreneurs who are looking to solve key healthcare challenges,” he says.
Barlow also shares a similar view on healthcare investment, emphasising that there is lack of sophistication across the GCC region in terms of venture capital and private equity. “But if you have a strong value proposition and a path to scale outside the UAE, the opportunities for capital are greatly increased,” he adds.
That said, UAE healthcare is still young and has the potential to lead to interesting opportunities for healthtech investors. In this regard, KPMG’s Stolz told International Finance, “Certain first movers in the UAE’s healthcare technology might enjoy greater influence with regard to healthcare policy specific to their technologies.”