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Growing demand for healthcare services, rising shortage of clinical resources, unequal access and unwarranted variation in care have contributed to high interest in the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the healthcare sector. AI applications are being developed and piloted across the entire spectrum of the industry ranging from clinical diagnostics, treatment procedures (surgical robotics), personal health applications, population stratification and pharmaceutical research to hospital administration and workflows.

However, most of the AI applications under development are quite narrow in their focus, having been designed for very specific tasks/decisions, using standardised data from limited sample sets. These AI applications inevitably fail when exposed to the real world. The challenges of unstructured, non-standardised data, diverse patient populations, varying processes and treatment protocols need to be resolved to enhance the potential of AI in healthcare.

When it comes to successes of AI in healthcare, diagnostic imaging has so far shown the most promise. All of the 120 plus AI algorithms that have been approved by US Food and Drug Administration (as of June 2021) for use are related to diagnostic imaging. AI applications are increasingly becoming mainstream across radiology departments.

Drug discovery has been another promising area with numerous companies witnessing varying levels of success. Moderna famously used AI technologies to speed up vaccine discovery and development for Covid-19. AI technologies developed by Google have been slowly replacing conventional drug discovery methods.

Population health management, hospital operations management, personal health diagnostics are some other areas where AI is making inroads in the healthcare sector. Increasing penetration of wearables combined with the growing adoption of mobile health apps has the potential of putting the power of managing health in the hands of the consumer.

The Middle East as a market presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities that need to be highlighted and addressed in the coming years if it means to fully unlock this potential. It will require an integrated approach across four primary dimensions, driven by the key stakeholders in the healthcare sector.

Regulatory environment: The UAE and Saudi Arabia have established an initial set of guidelines around the use of AI in healthcare, with a particular focus on medical devices. The regulatory context currently focuses on deployment of tested AI applications. It needs to be expanded to foster and regulate an active AI innovation and development ecosystem for healthcare applications.

Data management: AI is only as good as the underlying data. Data management practices need to be significantly enhanced with focus on data standardisation, automation of data collection, integration of diverse information systems across different providers and data privacy and protection. Introduction of NABIDH (Dubai), Abu Dhabi’s Healthcare Information and Cyber Security (ADHICS) Standard and Saudi Arabia’s Unified Health Record Systems and electronic health data exchange are welcome steps in this regard. However, both public and private health systems need to invest significantly in automating data collection, training frontline personnel in data management practices and ensuring data fidelity across all areas.

Deployment of proven AI solutions: Multiple successful AI solutions have been developed and deployed across global healthcare ecosystems. They have been adopted to varying degrees across the public and private healthcare facilities in the region. Higher proliferation of proven solutions will increase adoption and uptake of AI solutions.

Development of new and innovative AI applications for the Middle East: One of the common challenges of AI solutions is their non-adaptability across different population sets since they are trained with limited demographic profiles. It is critical for the Middle East to invest in and foster a local AI development community that is targeted towards regional specific challenges and deliver bespoke solutions.

— The writers are Partners Healthcare practice at Arthur D. Little Middle East