Is the pandemic catalysing healthcare trends in the GCC?

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Dr. Damien Ng, PhD,  Next Generation Analyst, Bank Julius Baer

Reality on the ground – what has happened?

Countries across the Middle East have also not been spared from the onslaught of the Covid-19 crisis, which has since claimed more than 900,000 casualties and resulted in over 30 million confirmed cases of infection worldwide at the time of writing. Data from Johns Hopkins University as at 25 September 2020 showed that there were nearly 60,000 (230 deaths), 87,000 (400 deaths) and 120,000 (200 deaths) confirmed cases in Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar, respectively. It is therefore understandable that focus has shifted to the resilience of the region’s national public health systems. In fact, the pandemic has demonstrated the willingness of many Gulf nations to turn to innovative solutions to alleviate strain from their healthcare systems while ensuring that patients continue to receive quality medical care during the health crisis. This is particularly the case when the implementation of lockdown has led to a boom in online medical consultations in the form of telemedicine and virtual hospitals.

The pandemic has revealed many countries in the Gulf region to turn to innovative healthcare solutions.

Rise of telemedicine during the Covid-19 crisis

For instance, the Covid-19 crisis has prompted the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention to establish the region’s first virtual hospital in collaboration with one of the country’s major telecom operators. Available to the public in the form of a downloadable app, Mulk E-Hospital enables patients to book appointments, seek medical consultation, and get diagnosis and treatments from a pool of around 2,000 physicians with different medical specialties located across the world. In other words, the healthcare delivery system has not only moved to the online platform beyond the confines of a brick-and-mortar clinic or hospital setting, but it has also transcended national boundaries thanks to technology. It is therefore in this context that patients can gain access to an extensive range of medical care anytime and anywhere, including locations like their home and workplace.

Virtual hospitals transcend national boundaries.

Remote health monitoring and robots

Admittedly, virtual care delivery is largely associated with telemedicine, which undeniably constitutes an indispensable feature of digital health. However, it is also important to highlight the broad spectrum of healthcare services that medical professionals and public health authorities can turn to, especially when care is combined with the uptake of new technologies. Specifically, they may include the use of remote health monitoring and medical robots for the goal of improving patient outcome and relieving further burden from frontline medical workers. For instance, the public health authorities in the UAE are relying on smart wristbands to track and monitor patients with Covid-19 as the latter self-quarantine at home. These devices are particularly suited for asymptomatic patients or those with milder symptoms that do not require urgent medical attention at the hospital. Medtech is also another area of technology that has been deployed in the UAE in the fight against the Covid-19. Specifically, these include robots that can detect fever, sterilise public spaces, dispense hand sanitisers, deliver food, and even answer questions about the coronavirus. Put differently, the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis has merely strengthened the case for greater adoption of digital-health technologies.

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Greater acceptance of technology among the young

Global support for a greater adoption of digital technologies in healthcare is primarily driven by the younger cohort of medical professionals and consumers, who tend to be more technical-savvy since they are more likely to have grown up in the digital age. In particular, they are also more likely to view digital-health technologies as tools that can help improve patients’ health outcomes and experiences. Cultural attitudes also play an important role when it comes to the use of technology in healthcare vis-à-vis privacy concerns. For instance, the 2020 Philips Future Health Index has divulged that 96% and 91% of younger healthcare professionals in Saudi Arabia and Singapore, respectively, believe that the use of anonymised health data benefits the society through better patient care, outweighing the perceived data privacy concerns of the individual. This compares with the average score of 78% among the younger healthcare specialists in the 15 countries surveyed in the index, versus an even lower tally of 62% recorded in France and the US.

Age and culture determine the willingness of medical professionals to adopt health technologies.

The UAE and Bahrain at the forefront of testing

Since the World Health Organisation has emphasised the importance of testing patients for Covid-19 in the battle against SARS-COV-2, many countries have turned to diagnostic testing to halt the further spread of the infectious disease. On absolute terms, data from The COVID Tracking Project and Worldometer have disclosed that China and the US conduct the most number of Covid-19 tests worldwide. As at 25 September 2020, approximately 160 million and 100 million tests were conducted in China and the US, respectively. However, when we zoom in on a per thousand population basis, the world’s two largest economies are clearly still lagging behind Gulf countries like the UAE and Bahrain. For example, the two wealthy Gulf nations have each conducted over 800 tests for every thousand inhabitants in comparison with 300 in the US and 110 in China. Nevertheless, statistics show that the US and China are ramping up the number of diagnostic tests for their citizens in order to stem the further transmission of SARS-COV-2.

Gulf countries are at the forefront of diagnostic testing.

The road ahead for Gulf healthcare

The future of healthcare will be shaped by favourable structural trends and developments in the industry. In particular, digital-health technologies in the areas of telemedicine, remote health monitoring and medtech should see further upside potential over the longer term, given the political tailwinds, momentous demographic forces in the Middle East, the rise of chronic diseases associated with ageing, as well as the growing financial burden of medical care.

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