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How tech is reinventing regional healthcare

Local governments are leveraging AI to shape the future of medicine

The Arab doctor examines the sick boy. He and his mother came to the hospital. Arabian hospital concept. Pediatrician office and sick child. VGStockstudio/Shutterstock
Evolving technology will allow for much more personalised healthcare in the future, taking into account an individual's genetic makeup

Can you imagine a world where medicine is tailor made just for you, and where you are forewarned of potential illnesses long before any symptoms emerge? This scenario is now becoming a reality thanks to rapid technological advances in the field of personalised healthcare, including the integration of advanced AI. 

The Covid-19 pandemic acted as a digital transformation catalyst for healthcare systems, especially in the Gulf states, with a recent GlobalData report showing that more than 80 percent of healthcare professionals share this view.

This transformation has encompassed everything from telemedicine to electronic health records, paving the way for more accessible, efficient and data-driven healthcare services.

For governments in the Middle East, the integration of technology in healthcare offers an opportunity to empower citizens and provide services closer to home, creating a preventative model with increased agility, precision and cost-effectiveness. 

Saudi Arabia’s Seha Virtual Hospital is a case in point.

Its virtual technology connects patients to leading clinicians across 130 hospitals and facilitates continuous at-home care for vulnerable patients through remote monitoring.

Additionally, it uses augmented reality to support surgeries and AI-driven medical imaging algorithms to enhance diagnostic precision by up to 95 percent.

These technological developments also herald a new era in personalised medicine.

Through the precision of AI, treatments and drug design can now be custom-tailored, considering a patient’s unique genetic makeup, lifestyle, and health history. This allows government and health authorities to offer specialised care to citizens and allocate public medical resources more efficiently. 

Take the UAE’s National Genome Strategy, for example. Launched in March 2023, this ambitious initiative aims to map the genomes of its population to identify group- and region-specific genetic predispositions to chronic diseases such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, allowing for early intervention and tailored lifestyle recommendations.  

The results of such initiatives are promising, especially when applied to clinical settings. 

For instance, scientists involved in the Qatar Genome Program have created the country’s first microarray gene chip. This advancement allows for more precise genetic testing for various disorders, paving the way for Qatar to integrate precision medicine into clinical practice.

AI algorithms are also being employed to sift through vast amounts of test results and imaging data, aiding in more accurate and swift diagnostic processes.

The implications of these technology-driven healthcare initiatives are profound

Advanced techniques such as neural networks – a type of machine learning – are used in early disease detection, significantly impacting fields like oncology.

Here they enable earlier identification of cancers through image analysis, neurology – where they aid in early diagnosis of conditions such as Alzheimer’s through brain-imaging data analysis – and rare genetic disorders, where the ability to quickly analyse extensive disparate datasets can enable quicker diagnoses.

The role of technology in the life sciences is becoming more prominent, particularly in expediting drug discovery.

As we face increasing challenges with drug-resistant pathogens, there is an urgent need to accelerate the identification and development of novel antibiotics. AI is emerging as an important tool in this battle, offering a much-needed edge in the fight against “superbugs” by enhancing the speed and efficiency of developing new drugs.

The implications of these technology-driven healthcare initiatives are profound.

While not every country in the region has the resources of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, they can still invest effectively by developing a practical strategy focused on addressing their population’s most important needs. 

As a starting point, they should focus on gathering and maintaining high-quality patient data, a feature often found lacking in many non-GCC countries.

The goal is to create a comprehensive national longitudinal electronic health record, complete with digitised medical IDs. Having complete health records for each patient will facilitate predictive analytics for preventive care, improve diagnostic accuracy, and enable the creation of personalised treatment plans.

On a broader scale, access to data that accurately reflects the entire population is vital for training AI models and making informed decisions. 

Governments must also assess and ensure they have sufficient compute capacity if they are to truly move to a digital-first approach to healthcare services and make the best use of the latest technological advances. 

To tap into the advantages of technology in healthcare, it is essential for governments to access, analyse, and utilise health data. The UAE, for instance, has made significant progress in preventive and personalised healthcare with readily accessible public health data. 

In today’s world, we face increasingly complex health challenges due to ageing populations, climate change, and an increased risk of outbreaks and pandemics. These challenges are compounded by budget constraints and a limited healthcare workforce. 

However, technological innovations, such as those that the region’s policymakers and health experts will witness at the upcoming Arab Health summit in Dubai, provide a unique opportunity for governments.

These innovations offer a chance to transform and redefine healthcare, making it more accessible, responsive, personalised, and efficient – a system well-equipped to meet the challenges of the future. 

Anand Pillai is a senior director leading projects in the GCC region at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, and Srinidhi Soundararajan is a manager specialising in health and life sciences

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