Growing healthtech ecosystem in the UAE
We have evolved from the era of standalone devices, drugs and surgery. Bio-absorbent stents, connected pumps, capsule endoscope, digital stethoscopes amongst others are innovations of the last decade. The buzz words in the industry today are artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), virtual care (VC), electronic intensive care unit (eICU), robotics, blockchain, data monetization, digital transformation etc. It is no longer just quality of care, but efficiency of “care and costs” that is key to disruption.
In the Middle East, we have seen adoption of various technologies in the last decade. Robotic Surgery was launched in 2003, closely followed by adoption of various digital platforms and artificial intelligence tools in the latter half of the last decade. So far, we have only witnessed introduction of technology in the region. The required penetration that is needed to transform care is yet to be seen. The region has focused more on investing in building infrastructure and setting up equipment in hospitals in the last decade. The optimum utilization of this equipment, necessary training requirements for clinicians and affordability for patients etc., were not focus areas. This led to lower utilization and lower return on investment. However, during the latter part of the last decade, there was increased focus on training clinicians, adopting products that address efficiency requirements for disease and patient management. Hence, we anticipate that countries would leverage the benefits of digital transformation in healthcare with increased savings, reduced expenditure and better quality of life for patients.
The 2020s would be the decade for transformation. With 44+ surgical robots installed so far, it would be appropriate to say that robotic surgery has just dawned. The region witnessed 3-fold increase in volumes of robotic surgery from 2010 to 2019. The launch of Saudi Vision 2030 and the goals of UAE Centennial 2071, have enabled adoption and utilisation of these new age solutions. The launch of haptic gloves, micro-robot cameras, new products beyond the da Vinci Surgical System has further strengthened transformation. Until 2017, 90 per cent of the robotic-assisted surgeries were only being conducted for urology; today, surgeons are open to utilizing these robots to conduct procedures on patients with issues of obesity, oncology, orthopaedics, etc. Robotic surgery assures highest quality of care as it reduces complication risks to 1-4% and increases speed of recovery (ALOS - average length of stay - reduced to less than 3 days on average). This is resulting in patients and surgeons wanting to benefit more from these technologies. Frost & Sullivan estimates that by 2025, the region will witness 12 per cent growth rate in sales of surgical robots and higher double-digit growth rate in volume of robotic surgical procedures conducted across specialties with more focus on bariatric and orthopaedic procedures.
AI in healthcare in the Middle East has been driven by customised platforms, solutions for varied care settings across countries. The AI adoption in the region has been driven by government initiatives. The focus has been more on diagnosis, prevention and monitoring than treatment. The Dubai Health Authority’s (DHA) partnership with Agfa Healthcare care in 2018 to utilise the chest x-ray screening programme AI algorithm was a great success, as it ensured 95 percent accuracy in identification of tuberculosis and resulted in 28 percent reduction in screening time, thereby improving both clinical and operational efficiency.
The launch of AI Lab by Abu Dhabi Department of Health in 2019 is the first-of–its-kind initiative in the region to develop and leverage AI, blockchain, predictive analytics and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) amongst others to transform healthcare. AI is likely to be an integral part of the daily activities of at least 3 million GCC patients by 2023.
Digital Transformation is not always clinically driven. The “Smart Pharmacy” solution in the Middle East is one such solution that reduces errors, increases efficiency and improves patient happiness. The newly launched automation robot solution can support storage for 35,000 drugs, prepare 12 prescriptions in less than a minute and dispense around 8,000 medicines in an hour. DHA states that the pharmacies have helped reduce average processing time from 22.5 minutes in 2016 to 7.9 minutes in 2018 and increased outpatient satisfaction rate from 69 percent in 2016 to 94 percent in 2018 during the same period (Source: https://www.dha.gov.ae/en/BetterHealth/Betterhealth2019Dec23-148.pdf).
It is interesting to see new start-ups in the region focusing on developing these digital tools. This enables better adoption as solutions are customised to both cultural and business requirements in the region.
Surveys conducted in the region by various organisations like you.gov have revealed that more than 65 percent of clinicians and patients believed that digital and new age solutions would transform care and their lives and were willing to adopt these solutions. However, only 37 percent of them believed that business (including infrastructure and processes) is ready for adoption, an aspect being mitigated by government initiatives to enable digital transformation.
Frost & Sullivan estimates the adoption and utilisation of digital and robotic tools in healthcare would account for USD 20 billion in the Middle East by 2023. It is estimated 60 percent of the countries in the region have some form of framework for digital transformation in healthcare. KSA and UAE would lead the way for this transformation with increased utilisation.