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In EY’s Pulse of the Industry 2019 report, Kevin Lobo, Chairman and CEO of Stryker, one of the leading medical technology companies in the world, says, “We are at the beginning of a digital transformation of healthcare.” He expects data-driven medical devices to lead the change, harnessing patient information to improve outcomes and efficiency, better manage chronic conditions, deliver more targeted therapies and avoid hospitalisations.

For sure, healthcare systems across the world are a long way from that. But where does the UAE industry stand in terms of adopting digital technologies?

Dr Rakesh Suri, CEO of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, believes the UAE is at the cutting edge of digital transformation within healthcare. “The vision of the leadership of the nation and regulators, coupled with strong investments in artificial intelligence, blockchain and related technologies, have all facilitated the rapid pace of development.

“Healthcare providers are able to be more agile as they are unencumbered by legacy considerations present in more traditional healthcare ecosystems. These factors have translated into advances that have transformed how we address the three greatest problems in healthcare globally – facilitating access to medical care, coordination of the most efficient healthcare journey for patients and their families, and delivering globally leading outcomes in a manner that is appreciated by patients.”

Sherif Beshara, Group CEO of Mohamed and Obaid Almulla Group of Companies that owns and operates American Hospital Dubai, agrees. “The move to insurance-based reimbursements, ever-changing requirements, and public policy changes have forced the industry to seek efficient ways to be more agile and responsive; this has pushed the digital transformation process tremendously.”

Digital front door

As people become more mobile and more connected thanks to digital technologies, it is vital that healthcare providers open a digital front door to make care as accessible as possible, says Dr Suri. He cites the launch of telemedicine and remote monitoring of patients as examples of extending that reach.

Dr Satish Prasad Rath, Chief of Innovation and Research at Aster DM Healthcare, believes that most of healthcare delivery in preventive care, elderly care and chronic disease monitoring and post discharge care can be done through digital or virtual healthcare. “Even though these modes were technologically ready, they weren’t part of the mainstream due to lack of approval from regulatory agencies as well as inertia in the healthcare system.”

But Covid-19 changed that and a new contactless but supervised mode of healthcare delivery has emerged, he says.

“We saw a surge of quarantine wards and makeshift hospitals during the pandemic. This required care delivery with minimal exposure of healthcare workers. The Internet of Things-based remote monitoring of quarantine wards and patients has been a huge benefit.

“At Aster, we leveraged these technologies to properly monitor ICUs and Covid wards with minimal exposure of our healthcare staff. This technology also helps in virtualising intensivist capacity.

“There are robots that can go to individual beds and deliver food, medicine, etc., which is going to be helpful in the current scenario. We are considering testing of such solutions.”

Dr Rath adds that in the new normal, virtual healthcare has become the mainstay of care delivery. It is preventive in nature, low-cost and high on patient experience, making healthcare more sustainable. “In this context, we feel digital therapeutics is going to be an important segment and we are investing in it.” Digital therapeutics provides evidence-based care to chronic patients. “The success of their disease management depends a lot on their motivation, lifestyle, adherence to medication and the support they receive from the care coordination team,” he explains. “All this can be done through our digital therapeutics platform.”

Right understanding

In terms of digital health products and solutions, there remains immense scope. “There exists a pipeline of impressive technologies such as Okadoc and Tigerspike ready for application within the system and provide demonstrable business benefits,” says Augustine Amusu, Chief Information Officer at Mediclinic Middle East.

“The main obstacles are from healthcare organisations appropriately understanding where digital solutions fit into their overall value chain and putting in place the right strategies to maximise benefits.”

But there’s hope. Dr Suri points to the paradigm shift that has happened in healthcare over the years. “We have become partners to our patients in health, treatment and recovery through digital technologies – this provides enormous comfort to the community we serve.

“Another example of this is the interconnectedness of the healthcare ecosystem and the collaboration it affords.

“Abu Dhabi is participating in a unified database that enables electronic medical records to be shared between all healthcare facilities. This allows us to enhance our ability to offer carefully tailored, personalised care, regardless of where the patient is being treated.”

AI in the fight against Covid-19

Dr Satish Prasad Rath, Chief of Innovation and Research at Aster DM Healthcare, takes us through how artificial intelligence (AI) has helped his organisation cope with the Covid-19 crisis.

An infodemic remedy: Patient education with authentic information was the first step. AI-powered information hubs were helpful where the source was defined by AI. There were numerous concerns about how to respond to the disease. AI-powered symptom checkers helped a lot in this situation – it was the only solution that could be scaled up so quickly.

Mental health support: In these unprecedented times, front-line workers are mostly stressed. We launched an AI-powered mental health support for our staff, which helps them cope with anxiety, isolation stress and work-related uncertainty. It is a 24x7 virtual therapist available at your fingertips, whenever and wherever you need it. We have also opened the same device to our patients.

Scalable in-hospital triage: AI can also potentially help in identifying the at-risk patients who might need special intervention based on the disease pathway or newer lesions on the radiographs. There has been a good amount of experiments in this field and initial results are encouraging.