Explainer: How Covid-19 has impacted the GCC’s healthcare sector
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Explainer: How Covid-19 has impacted the GCC’s healthcare sector

Explainer: How Covid-19 has impacted the GCC’s healthcare sector

Healthcare providers have been forced to upgrade to new technologies and improve efficiencies, opines Dr Fatih Mehmet Gul, CEO, Fakeeh University Hospital

What has been the impact of the pandemic on the GCC’s healthcare industry?
The pandemic has had a profound effect on all sectors. For the healthcare sector in the region, the pandemic precipitated the need to upgrade existing infrastructure and adopt remote patient management technologies on a larger scale. Covid-19 placed unparalleled demands on healthcare providers, who were not ready to deliver care without getting patients to the hospital.

But while the pandemic has most certainly disrupted the healthcare industry, it has proven to be very agile in responding to the situation, with many providers championing innovation and reevaluating their business model. The GCC has seen a significant increase in the integration of digital healthcare solutions in hospitals. In the UAE, the Ministry of Health and Prevention recorded nearly 50,000 virtual hospital visits as of the end of Q3 2020.

The response was truly amazing, and I believe this will make history.

Do you think the industry was prepared to deal with the sudden shift in dynamics – including remote consultations and the use of new tech?
The real challenge the industry faced at the beginning of the pandemic was managing the extraordinary numbers of patients with the limited number of available caregivers. Nobody was entirely prepared for that. Hospitals deploy and use their resources following a ratio devised on patients’ forecast numbers. With Covid, hospitals saw an unpredicted surge of patients. This meant providers had to rethink how to make their services accessible to more patients, implement new technology, but also learn very quickly how to utilise it to manage the high numbers of patients.

In our Saudi operations, remote patient monitoring systems have been crucial to manage large numbers of Covid patients with the same number of medical teams that we had on the ground. When the UAE government informed us that they were setting up field hospitals, we did not hesitate to lend our medical equipment, ventilators, and beds to alleviate the pressure on the system.

In your view, what are the main challenges facing the sector at present?
I believe talent retention will remain one of the key priorities for many providers, who are experiencing very high turnover rates. Covid has taken a significant toll on frontline healthcare workers across the world, not only from a physical perspective by exposing them to the coronavirus, but also mentally, with many experiencing higher-than-usual levels of stress.

Unfortunately, talent management within the healthcare sector is not as popular a topic as in other industries. However, healthcare is our business, and at the heart of it are our people, doctors, nurses and clinicians, and if they’re not fulfilled then it’s unlikely patients will have the best experience and outcomes possible. Talent management is not all about remuneration; very often it’s about providing career growth opportunities.

The second biggest challenge in my opinion will continue to be cost management. Healthcare expenditure is increasing every single day for governments, and public and private hospitals due to the burden of chronic diseases, increased life expectancy and ageing populations.

According to Alpen Capital, gross medical inflation rates ranged between 3.5 per cent and 9.1 per cent in the GCC during 2020. Managing the expenditure starts at the cost management points, and hospitals who can manage their costs will continue to stay in the market, while the others will find it very difficult to sustain their operations. Cost management can be simplified by implementing automated material  management systems, which help monitor the cost and consumption of resources to ultimately provide the right service at the right cost.

You recently opened a massive $500m facility in the UAE – can you reveal the reason behind the huge investment?
Through our Saudi operations, we have achieved a proven business model of excellence for academic care delivery, which translates into our newly opened 350-bed university hospital. When we made the decision for expansion, we could have easily built a chain of four or five hospitals in the UAE with this investment. However, we wanted to create an institute, stretching across four-buildings, founded on academics, with locally and regionally based medical research and talent, all under one umbrella.

Today, when we look at the UAE market, we see several chains of single focused hospital models; each branch specialises in a few therapy areas. This however can disrupt the patient treatment and recovery journey, especially if his or her chief complaint involves other clinical areas that require external expertise. For this reason, we wanted to bring an all-inclusive multidisciplinary care model, across 55 specialties, set to provide primary, secondary and tertiary care for more than 700,000 patients a year.

Fakeeh University Hospital is also equipped with innovative diagnostic technology, advanced data-assisted and automated medication dispensing systems. Patient rooms have built-in smart systems and future plans also include a hospital navigation system to help patients move around the clinics and campus. Spread across 35,000 square feet, Fakeeh University Hospital’s emergency department is the largest in the emirate in the private sector. But most importantly, operating as the first teaching hospital in Dubai, it is set to provide medical education to the future generations of doctors in the region.

Fakeeh University Hospital is also a teaching facility – is that an area where you see more scope in the region?
Our region is predominantly populated by a young demographic, of which a significant portion may require medical training and education. Hence we certainly see a great opportunity to build our own local capacity development. Instead of sending their children overseas and outside the region, many families are looking for local solutions without compromising on quality. This is why we initially created our education arm in Saudi in 2003.

Furthermore, with the UAE aiming to transition to a knowledge-based economy, unlocking the potential of local talent is not only important, but fundamental to the UAE’s economic development. Covid-19 has also propelled the development of local manufacturing for pharmaceuticals and vaccine production, which will increase the demand for home-grown talent in the near future.

Looking ahead, what are the biggest trends set to shape the future of the regional healthcare industry?
We expect to see an enormous uptake of medical technology innovations in the market. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play an increasingly bigger role in emergency response, but also in predictive analytics. AI spending in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries is expected to increase from $463m in 2019 to more than $2bn over the next five years.

On the diagnostic front, technologies are expected to increasingly assist doctors to make faster and more accurate diagnoses. Preventive medicine will have an accentuated focus as well. Future technologies will encourage proactive digital engagement with high-risk patients, allowing doctors to actively initiate telemedicine follow ups, increase treatment adherence and improve the management of chronic diseases.

Technologies such as drones, real-time dashboards and new types of surveillance tools will also be more in demand as a means to monitor and manage infectious and non-communicable diseases.

The adoption of innovative outpatient management systems will help hospitals further manage future bottlenecks in emergency departments and triage patients more effectively, allowing providers to manage hospital resources more efficiently.

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