Cover story: How digital technologies have upped the game for healthcare across GCC
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Special report: How digital technologies have upped the game for healthcare across GCC

Special report: How digital technologies have upped the game for healthcare across GCC

As technologies drive the future of most industries, digital solutions are also reshaping the healthcare sector

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There is no understating the fact that digital technologies rose to the occasion across several industries in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Healthcare was no exception.

Digital solutions enabled healthcare providers to offer timely and effective interventions to patients world-wide, shredding the myth that quality diagnosis and treatment could not be adequately provided by e-interactions. However, even prior to the global health crisis, digital technologies were complementing operations and services across the length and breadth of the healthcare landscape. Be it patient care and diagnostics, virtual collaboration, remote monitoring or task automation, innovation in healthcare helped reshape wellbeing and showcased how patient care could be effective yet scalable.

The manifestation of new solutions to tackle health issues and engage patients via user-centric interfaces has given rise to a new face of healthcare, one that advocates for greater wellbeing. Telehealth broadened the scope of patient care, effectively superseding on-site appointments. Wearable technology prompted remote monitoring by measuring key health metrics for timely intervention. Smart patches are also serving as diagnostic tools, helping monitor vital parameters and administer medication. With growing concern for health, a significant rise in wearables and other wellness devices is also anticipated. According to Deloitte Global, 320 million consumer health and wellness wearable devices will be shipped worldwide in 2022.

By 2024, this number is expected to reach nearly 440 million units, including both smartwatches and medical-grade wearables. With greater intent to monitor health markers and advancing technologies such as 5G and virtual reality, complemented by the increasing sophistication of devices and new and existing players disrupting the space, the adoption of digital healthcare tools and technologies will only escalate. However, healthtech is not limited to patient-related services but goes well beyond that, covering ancillary elements such as electronic patient records, artificial intelligence (AI) for efficiency and clinical support and big data to identify larger health trends.

Numbers back the optimism: The e-health market in the Middle East and Africa was valued at $989m in 2019 and is projected to reach $1.8bn in 2024, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.8 per cent, according to a Global Ventures report. Meanwhile, MENA is the fastest growing region in the Smart Health and Connected Hospital sector and is expected to be valued at $2.1bn by 2022, it added.

Regional focus 
The healthcare sector across the GCC has come of age. According to a KPMG report, healthcare-related expenditure in the Gulf grew from $60bn in 2013 to $76bn in 2019 and is expected to scale to $89bn by 2022.

Alisha Moopen, deputy managing director, Aster DM Healthcare states that the patient of the future wants to be empowered, engaged and educated about his health. “The dynamic nature of health requires every aspect from genetic predisposition to sleep scores to bowel movements to calorie intake to exercise regime and many other aspects to be seen as different inputs to create the scenarios and care management for optimal health for each person.

“As an organisation we are evolving to adopt a sustainable business model which can make healthcare accessible for patients across the world and we see digital health and technology integration at the core of this model. The pandemic acted as a catalyst in accelerating our plans and we were one of the first healthcare players in the UAE to introduce telehealth. Within eight months of its introduction, we had 800 doctors enrolled across five countries who provided 100,000 consultations. We also launched the E-ICU model wherein critical care experts from across operations were pooled into one central hub so that care for our patients doesn’t stop.”

The rising demand in digital healthcare services across the region has also drawn significant investor interest, which could be attributed to several factors, namely opportunities to attend to a burgeoning population, growing consumer demand and greater efficiency. Digital health platform Altibbi announced a $44m Series B fund raise earlier this year to accelerate its footprint and expand into online pharmacy and diagnostics to enhance AI-based health services. Meanwhile, Saudi-based telehealth startup Cura announced the closing of a SAR15m Series A investment in October last year. With over 4,500 registered doctors, it has helped around 350,000 users since 2016.

Last year, Bahrain-based healthtech startup Doctori also secured $500k seed funding. Furthermore, UAE-based doctor booking platform Okadoc closed its $10m Series A round in 2020 and following the launch of its telehealth platform the same year, Okadoc has enabled over 75,000 video consultations. Mediclinic also partnered with Okadoc to deliver MyMediclinic 24×7, a digital application offering the ability to search available doctors, book virtual and in-person consultations, register and check-in online, manage appointments and receive reminders.

“By integrating directly with Mediclinic’s EHR, Okadoc reduced clinic no-shows and increased appointment fill rates. In the first eight months, Mediclinic’s no-show rate for online bookings was consistently lower to bookings made via in person or the client engagement centre, representing an overall 15-20 per cent reduction in no shows,” notes Fodhil Benturquia, CEO and founder at Okadoc.

“Further, the digital waiting list expedited 15,000 appointments to earlier times, equating to Dhs13m in earlier recognised revenue.”

But the key question remains – will growing demand for digital healthcare continue to prompt greater investor interest? “This convergence of health and technology has unlocked significant potential to improve care and make it more equitable. This will continue to attract investors not only for the financial potential but also for the impact that population health can have in social development and economic growth in the region,” notes Abraham Calvo, partner, Healthcare practice at Kearney Middle East.

“With more and more evidence that technology can help address big challenges such as access constraints, growing chronic conditions and high costs, investors continue to see in healthcare a sector with growing potential.

“We are also seeing a refreshed interest from sovereign wealth funds that, in line with the global influx of capital into digital health, are increasing the share of health investments within their portfolios to drive the envisioned transformations of healthcare systems across our region.”

Besides standalone companies raking in considerable investment, regional governments and public-private partnerships are also playing a huge role in adopting technological advancements for greater human benefit. The UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention launched a digital health AI-powered platform project to stem the spread of communicable diseases based on the data of international organisations. Last year, the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority and Philips partnered to drive the use of AI in the kingdom’s healthcare system. In early 2022, Dubai-based entrepreneur Faisal Belhoul and iGan Partners, Canadian healthcare technology investors, also partnered to launch a $250m regional fund, which would focus on investing in AI/cloud-enhanced medical devices and digital health technologies.

Aster DM Healthcare’s Moopen adds: “We have also entered into partnerships with leading global companies like Siemens and Novartis to further integrate data analytics, scientific platforms and technologies into our operations with an aim to further strengthen treatment outcomes for patients in the UAE and beyond.”

Beckoning the future 
Future healthcare systems, bolstered by digital technologies, are expected to broaden the reach of patient care – one that is accessible, scalable and equitable – and promote prevention rather than cure. More so, digital technologies will also work in tandem to promote sustainability and reduce the industry’s environmental footprint. According to a study published in The Lancet, healthcare causes global environmental impacts that range between 1 per cent and 5 per cent of total global impact.

By instilling virtual care in the form of telehealth or shi­fting gears from resource-heavy clinical environments to networked settings, digitalisation will not only stem environmental degradation but also encourage the effective distribution of resources.

“As we move into a more digitised world, teleconsultation will become the new normal thus widening the access to care. Digitalisation, blockchain and ‘Big Data’ are growing in prominence and artificial intelligence will be the engine that will drive improvements across the healthcare spectrum. In the decade to come, we shall witness a paradigm shi­t in the healthcare system not only in terms of care but also in costs – thanks to every evolving digital technology,” notes Moopen. “The apt application of algorithms will give us deep insights into diagnostics, treatment practices, and patient outcomes. Wearable devices could potentially play a bigger role in detecting any potential health threats and diseases and provide patients with the necessary treatment on time while remote patient monitoring and virtual care will help us widen the care.”

According to Philips’ Future Health Index 2021 report, healthcare leaders appear to be taking a three-step approach to digital transformation – investment in telehealth to bolster care delivery; investment in AI as a powerful enabler of operational efficiency and improved diagnosis; and strategic partnerships with hospitals or healthcare facilities, technology companies and others.

“The use of AI in healthcare is currently grounded in administrative tasks. However, as healthcare leaders look to the future, they envision deeper use of the digital health technology. Healthcare leaders are prioritising investment in AI to optimise operational efficiency (19 per cent) and anticipate doing so even more three years from now (37 per cent). Healthcare leaders also expect to invest in AI three years from now to integrate diagnostics (32 per cent), predict outcomes (30 per cent), and for clinical decision support (24 per cent),” the report – which reviewed the responses of almost 3,000 healthcare leaders – stated.

Benturquia adds: “Today, many GCC countries have set their sustainable development agendas to include technology as a key pillar. On top of that, GCC residents have become empowered and conditioned to use the power of technology across every aspect of their daily lives – from booking flights to ordering food to using online banking. So, it comes as no surprise that digitalisation across healthcare sector will only continue to advance.

“Healthcare organisations have realised that, in order to deliver high-quality care and improve health and business outcomes, now is the time to adapt to this digital revolution. This includes adopting patient-facing digital healthcare such as telehealth and digital booking and administrative tasks such as AI automation and electronic patient records.”

From wearables to engaging interfaces to virtual care, technology is driving innovation across healthcare. With key concerns such as the prevalence of chronic diseases, high cost of care and inequitable access on the rise, digital health offerings may just be the answer to bridging the supply demand gap, providing scalable solutions that offer greater care and improved wellbeing.

Digital transformation in health insurance 
Likened to tech bolstering the healthcare industry, emerging technologies within the insurance sector are also reshaping how services are delivered to consumers.

Companies are leveraging key technologies to develop efficient business models. According to a Capgemini report, focus areas for health insurers include acquiring technical capabilities; driving behavioural change; advancing ecosystem partnerships; providing sustained care; and transforming member navigation. Additionally, health insurers are leveraging cognitive automation to power emotionally intelligent, real-time interaction with members, it added.

However, what are the emerging digital trends in the health insurance sector? “Embracing a digital move is a golden opportunity for GCC insurers to get ahead of the competition. In fact, digitalisation is a key trend that will continue to grow and evolve into 2022 and beyond across the globe,” says Neeraj Gupta, CEO, Policybazaar.ae.

Gupta adds: “Another major trend that has emerged in the insurance industry is the accelerated adoption of technology. When it comes to enabling insurance buying or selling services –technological offerings like AI, IoT and digital underwriting are key. These technologies meet the customers’ demands while allowing the insurer to deliver more value instantly. These technologies also provide seamless interactions, greater transparency and personalised services.

“Insurers’ focus on customer centricity should increase while providing personalised and tailored products and services. With the advent of digital platforms, mobile apps, and big data, customers now expect to be self-sufficient. They expect an enhanced level of service from the moment they buy a policy right through to the settlement of a claim with greater versatility.”

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