With significant advances in technology to support the high demand for access to healthcare, Dr Shanila Laiju, Group Chief Executive Officer, Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres in the UAE, talks about how it can be leveraged to improve efficiency, and the role of digitalisation for Medcare

What are the trends in technology right now, what has changed since the pandemic broke out to now? And what does the future look like?

With 2021 behind us, Covid-19’s presence still continues to linger around the world. Of all the industries that have been forever changed by the impacts of the pandemic, healthcare has changed the most. With significant advances in technology to support the high demand of access to healthcare and growing digitization of protected health information, the industry has evolved in many ways to continue to deliver the same excellent quality of service.

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In 2022, it’s critical to remain mindful of the trends driving healthcare technology and continue to improve in every area. Although existing software and infrastructure are critical to the success of modern health organisations, it’s important that we consider how those systems can integrate with newer technologies as well. The focus should be on improving performance, efficiency, and most importantly safety and patient seamless journey to get the right care.

Although security will improve across the industry, threats are always evolving that must be dealt with through prevention rather than response. Quality and efficiency of care will continue to improve due to ground-breaking and evolving technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of Medical Things (IoT) like wearables.

What is the role of digitalisation for Medcare?

Digitalisation for Medcare means much more than efficiency, automation, and the accumulation of data. Digitalisation represents an opportunity for patient-centricity and individualisation. Patients have growing expectations when it comes to the clinical and experiential services they expect to receive. Digitisation provides us at Medcare a unique opportunity to respond to these growing expectations and deliver on them.

Also, technology is revolutionising and reshaping the relationship between patients, healthcare providers, and the healthcare ecosystem in general. Innovation in technology will support the patient along their entire healthcare journey, transforming the way they keep and stay connected to healthcare professionals.

One way we’re applying this is through interactive, easy-to-use digital tools that help us work with our patients to be proactive about accessing care, ease of booking and managing appointments and treatment planning.

Our teleMEDCARE platform for teleconsultations was launched at the onset of the pandemic to provide immediate medical access to people who needed it from anywhere at anytime. It allows live video consultations where patients can consult a doctor without an advanced appointment. All they have to do is click on the “Call Doctor Live Now’’ button on the Medcare website to connect with a doctor.

Moreover, we are committed to deliver outstanding patient care and exceptional clinical services in our communities. We strongly believe that adopting innovations and world-class technologies will augment our patient experience and units’ operations. We implemented InterSystems TrakCare electronic medical record system across all our four hospitals and 18 medical centres.

It will further improve the clinical outcomes and patient care delivery by supporting our medical staff in their decision-making, which in return will help us strengthen our patient safety and privacy; patient record availability; and creating more opportunities to offer the patients an enhanced experience and seamless care journey as they spend less time waiting and avoid unnecessary tests.

There has been a considerable focus on AI lately. What are the technologies that you foresee changing post the pandemic?

For multiple industries, AI has been able to gain decision-relevant information out of complex systems and recognise patterns in behaviour by using machine learning algorithms. In healthcare, this can be very beneficial, as technology allows us to analyse relationships between prevention, diagnostic or treatment techniques and patient outcomes. Furthermore, AI programmes are used to improve diagnostic procedures, to develop treatment protocols such as chronic diseases, and to personalise medical pathways.

Healthcare providers can leverage technologies to transform care delivery, patient experience, staff management and hospital operations. Consumer adoption of digital health has reached an all-time high compared with a few years ago — more people use wearable trackers and devices, access telemedicine apps or go online to research treatment information. Medical innovation, technology and artificial intelligence are currently a big investment area for us, as it has the potential to optimise treatment and efficiency across our hospitals and medical centres.

How did you use digital capabilities as a path to transform your relationship with patients?

Innovations in healthcare are becoming very important in revolutionizing patient engagement, physician interactions and improving overall quality of care. Millions of patients use internet research sometimes for non-health reasons and can discover high quality medical findings, which make them more knowledgeable about their own conditions.

They now have access to all the information at their fingertips that were once available only to healthcare professionals. They want to become more confident in validating the options suggested by their doctors. Their intentions are to help the professionals to help them. Without question technology is having profound impact on the practice of medicine.

This is why we are moving towards a full digitisation of our entire organisation, namely digital products, channels and processes, as well as advanced analytics that enable new operating models. This includes thinking of strategies on how digitalisation will continue to transform healthcare, best practices on how data is stored and transferred, gaining informed patient analyses, and ensuring the protection of digital assets such as patient records.

With approximately 2,000 employees and 1.2 million patients a year, Medcare’s continued digitalised transformation looks to achieve the best outcomes for patients. This has required the coming together of internal departments such as operations, HR, IT, marketing and finance along with external entities such as tech companies, insurers and regulators in perfect harmony..

What are the challenges that the healthcare sector and health organisations are facing? How would an improvement in these challenges impact efficiency and thus the satisfaction of patients?

In an age where the evolution of technologies is moving forward at an accelerated pace, it is also about reviewing whether digital transformation is an investment or an expense and seeing which part of your infrastructure needs digitalisation first. Providers must identify prioritisation areas and lay out clear strategies and desired outcomes before setting on their way to digitise.

Also, patients have been accustomed to improvements in other industries that deliver a unique, pleasant digital experience and they are demanding better experience when accessing care. The industry is shifting from supply-driven systems and transitioning to patient-centered systems, organised around what patients need, prefer and value. These are the required changes, which will lead to patient satisfaction.

In the medical industry automation is increasing, what does it mean for Medcare?

This process has no endpoint and is a continuous learning curve. Many companies fail in adopting the right mix of technologies or having a team with the right skills to harness these technologies. For this to work effectively, we have chosen strategic technology partners to provide the tools, processes and the know-how.

We are also investing in our employees to address the digital skills gap and to build an understanding of how every innovation would assist them do their jobs better, and to equip them to be catalysts for digitalisation. Specifically, we are focusing our efforts to foster innovative approaches and really push ourselves and our thinking beyond pre-defined boundaries.

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“The UAE has emerged as one of the preferred medical destinations”

David Boucher, Chief of Service Excellence, Aster DM Healthcare, puts a spotlight on medical value travel and how Medcare is well positioned to provide care for tourists in areas such as orthopaedic and spinal surgery, and gene therapy

Have there been any changes regarding inbound medical travel to the UAE in the past two years?

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the value of the medical tourism market was about US$15.5 billion in 2017, and it is expected to grow to US$28 billion by the end of 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of about 8.8 per cent between 2018 and 2024.

The healthcare industry has recently seen a great potential of growth in the UAE. Medical tourism is developing quickly, and the state-of-art healthcare infrastructure and government initiatives are helping make the UAE a hub for medical tourism. This is supported by a high-quality health system with an extensive network of hospitals and medical centres offering the best medical treatments with no waiting time.

For what treatment do patients usually travel to the UAE? What areas of expertise does Medcare offer to medical tourists?

Over the last few years, the UAE has emerged as one of the preferred medical destinations for patients — regionally and internationally — seeking care in areas such as orthopaedics, dermatology, and cosmetics. This is due to the high cost of treatment for these specialities, the wait time for procedures and in other instances the lack of insurance coverage. Also, the UAE has many hospitals that are accredited by the Joint Commission International, a US-based organisation that approves health care organisations and programmes.

With two multi-speciality hospitals and two highly specialised hospitals in orthopaedics and spine, and women and children, in addition to 18 medical centres, Medcare is well positioned to provide care in medical fields such as orthopaedic and spinal surgery, and gene therapy. In fact, since 2020, Medcare has successfully treated 15 affected children for Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a genetic neuromuscular disease that causes muscles to become weak. Some of these patients were residents of the UAE and others have travelled from countries such as Iran, Turkey, Nepal, Romania, Ethiopia, India and the Philippines to receive treatment at Medcare Women & Children Hospital.

How do you envision the future of medical travel, medical tourism and international patients five years from now?

More patients are seeking and are able to afford medical care when not provided by their home public health systems. These patients are willing to travel to access faster care, specialised treatment, or better technology that is not available in their own country.

Also, the evolution of medical tourism globally presents many opportunities and challenges. It identifies the need for a larger type of dialogue between governments, healthcare organisations, insurance companies, and medical tourism operators. By exploring these opportunities and potential risks, government regulators will need to be engaged to understand the future of what growing medical tourism means for themselves and their patients.