GCC healthcare: Putting patients at the heart of the industry

The region’s healthcare industry is seeing major developments in technology as well as changing patient needs



The customer is always right. It’s a slogan that has stuck firm as a bedrock of service industries since being popularised by high-end retailers such as Selfridges, Wanamaker’s, and Marshall Field’s around the turn of the 20th century.

At least, most service industries. A notable exception is healthcare, where the customer – the patient – has traditionally been expected to accept the decisions, diagnoses and dictums of the industry professionals. And often for good reason, given both the complexity and importance of giving the best, most accurate advice and treatment.

But while there is a large degree of logic to this structure, it is not without its criticisms. Doctor-centric models – or worse, business-centric models – have attracted concerns that organisations are set-up in a way that focuses on profits and targets rather than customer experience. A system that can sideline or disregard the patient at best, or allow practitioners to intimidate or coerce the patient at worst. 

In recent years, however, the spotlight has been shined more intensely on the role of the customer in the healthcare cycle, largely as a result of disruption in other industries.

From transportation to tourism, the likes of Careem and Airbnb have proved there can be a different paradigm – that customers have more power and more options now than they ever have in the past. 

Driven by technological developments and the example of other industries, today’s patients are better informed, have greater expectations, can shop around, and can make or break an organisation’s reputation with online reviews.

In its Making the Shift report about healthcare’s transformation to customer-centricity, US consultancy firm Prophet wrote: “With the rise of digital technologies, consumers have unprecedented power. They have greater access to all kinds of information, providing more choices and flexibility for what they consider, buy and share with others.

“Healthcare continues to frustrate consumers. An alarming 81 per cent of consumers are dissatisfied with their healthcare experiences, and the happiest are those who interact with the system the least.”

Writing specifically about the US, the report summarised patients’ needs in a way that not only resonates regionally but globally.

“Consumers want healthcare to be convenient, connected and tailored to their own needs. They want and expect seamless experiences and solutions that make their lives easier, not more complicated. But more often than not, the end result is just the opposite.”

How is regional healthcare adapting?

In the GCC, there have been long-standing plans to move away from the traditional healthcare model and develop more customer-centric environments. Indeed, as part of its Dubai Health Strategy 2016-2021, the Dubai Health Authority included customer-centricity as one of its six values, alongside efficiency, an engaged and motivated workforce, accountability and transparency, innovation, and excellence.
 
At January’s Dubai Health Forum, one of the event’s key themes was ‘patient centred healthcare’, with panel discussions such as ‘Artificial Intelligence in Patient Centricity’ proving a popular draw.

Similarly, in its vision statement for its eHealth Stategy, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health says it is striving for: “A safe, quality health system, based on patient centric care, guided by standards, enabled by eHealth.” Thus emphasising the kingdom’s intentions to put the patient back into the heart of healthcare.

The momentum for customer-centric healthcare certainly seems to be gathering pace, but how can countries actually roll it out?

In its report What is the cure for a better patient experience in the GCC? EY wrote: “To become truly patient-centric, a healthcare system needs to recentre to its core purpose of ‘enabling citizens to live healthy lives’. This means putting citizens at the center of thinking and decision-making, shifting from ‘inside out’ to ‘outside in’ thinking, and engaging and involving citizens to define their expectations, standards and measures while getting them to rate their experiences.”

The report cites three broad areas of improvement that the healthcare ecosystem must consider for the future: Better engagement, better experiences, and better outcomes.

Under ‘better engagement’ it lists electronic health records, social media, mobile health applications, preventative education, and citizen health as key to being of help.

Under ‘better experiences’ it lists patient experience, connected experiences, citizen health, smart dust, and personalised medicine. And under ‘better outcomes’ it lists genetic screening, data and analytics, wearables, telemedicine, AI, and sensors and devices.

Technology at the heart

It’s not hard to see from this assessment that – as is the case for most, if not all other sectors – it’s technology that is the main driver of healthcare’s evolution.The Internet of Things is helping to improve diagnostics and decision-making, AI is speeding up administrative tasks and helping with robotic surgery, telecommunication developments are improving remote healthcare, and 3D printing is tailoring individual solutions to individual patients at incredible speeds.

There is a near constant stream of news in the GCC about the latest developments that are set to improve healthcare – with chatbots coming to the fore in recent weeks.

In March, for example, healthcare service provider Avivo Group announced the launch of the second phase of its AI-powered chatbot ‘AVY’. Designed to eliminate patients’ waiting time, Avivo Group says the chatbot will be able to find doctors from different specialties, schedule appointments, ease payment procedures, and facilitate teleconsultation.

Other providers across the Gulf are also preparing to launch their own chatbots, which not only have benefits to the patient, but huge cost-saving potential for the companies. According to a report by Juniper Research, chatbots could generate cost savings of $3.6bn to the global healthcare industry by 2022.

More widely, AI will be able to enhance the customer experience in multiple ways. Writing for gulfbusiness.com in February, Alniz Popat, CEO of Lifecare International, highlighted AI’s role in analysing and applying big data by identifying three ways the technology will have an impact.

These included ‘avoiding medication errors’, ‘identifying people in need of support’, and ‘optimising hospital staffing’. 

On the second of these points, he said: “Big data analytics can be used to pick up any behaviour that is out of the ordinary. For example it could automatically flag up people who make excessive use of medical services. They can then benefit from pre-emptive support to manage their health better.”

On staffing, he added: “Analysing big data could help hospitals work out when additional staff are needed, reducing waiting times, avoiding lost working hours for [hospital] employees, as well as cutting costs.”

The use of healthtech is clearly a major part of regional governments’ thinking, as proven by UAE eHealth Week, held in March.

At the event, Dr Mohammed Al Redha, director of the executive office for organisational transformation at the Dubai Health Authority, said: “If we are going to continue leading in the age of digital transformation, we have to understand the landscape and keep ahead of the trends.

“As patients are shaping the market, we as regulators always need to be two steps ahead and develop a comprehensive collaborative schedule that gives us foresight.”

With front-end developments afoot, it is also important that back-end technology is keeping the customer experience high. Security, for example, is vital in protecting data and giving patients peace of mind.

“Security and data protection, especially in the healthcare sector, is critical as a breach can put patients and their lives at risk,” says Sheikh Sadiq, partner at ALT Technology – an IT consultancy and provider of hardware and software solutions.

“The last thing a healthcare provider wants to do is put patients’ personal and medical information at risk,” he added.

Whether cybersecurity, waiting times, personalised care or ease of use, these few examples paint a clear picture: Healthcare providers must use technology to put patients back at the heart of the ecosystem or risk losing out to competitors who will.

As EY said in its report: “Putting the patient at the heart of an organisation’s strategy can lead to better overall profitability for providers,” while Boston Consulting Group found that across retail, healthcare, and financial services in the US, “personalisation will push a revenue shift of some $800bn to the 15 per cent of companies that get it right.”

From whichever angle you approach it – be it purely from the patient experience side, or purely the commercial side, the conculsion is the same. Customer centricity will play an increasingly key role in the evolution of the region’s healthcare industry.