Across the Gulf public health authorities and private institutions are investing in smart technologies to improve patient care. Data collection, sharing and analysis; DNA-driven research on precision medicine; and distance consultation and diagnostics are already being implemented in some areas of the GCC. The region’s hydrocarbons wealth is being used to support the latest research and commercial development of solutions for both medical professionals and patients.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic will be a major factor in budgetary considerations in the short term, as GCC countries identify solutions to successfully respond to the crisis and address gaps in supply.
According to the most recent available data from the World Bank, in 2017 per capita health care spending in GCC countries ranged from $588 in Oman to $1529 in Kuwait, where generous government allowances have been used to fund treatment abroad for many citizens. Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia spent $1127, $1357 and $1093, respectively.
In March 2020 the Saudi Food and Drug Authority was quick to expedite the import, approval and distribution of personal protective equipment, testing kits and N95 masks in response to the spread of the virus. By the end of that month the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHP) reported that it had carried out more than 220,000 laboratory tests for Covid-19, or around 22,900 tests per 1m people: the second-highest testing density in the world.
In Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, a lab capable of conducting tens of thousands of tests daily was built from scratch within a period of two weeks. In Oman the government created 22 isolation centres in Muskat capable of accommodating 3000 people. By early April 2020, 583 patients in these centres had become healthy enough to return to their homes.
The Covid-19 crisis may have put telemedicine in the spotlight in 2020, but the region has long recognised the potential for remote consultation and diagnostics. In 2014 Abu Dhabi’s private investment vehicle, Mubadala Investment Company, signed an agreement with Switzerland’s Medgate to create Abu Dhabi Telemedicine Centre (ADTC). ADTC provides call centre services to two of Mubadala’s other health care investments, Healthpoint Hospital and Capital Health Screening Centre, and in early 2020 extended this offering to include the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre. In addition, in early 2020 Mubadala’s Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi successfully established an online health portal that allows patients to attend virtual visits with physicians, track their prescriptions and receive information on test results.
In Bahrain licensed medical company Skype Telemedicine Solutions provides remote radiography, demonstrating how hospitals and health authorities can navigate around regional shortages of some skills in order to improve patient services.
Although new technologies are indeed facilitating innovative treatments, some health care providers in the region caution that in the short term the most important investment will be to train more citizens to become health care professionals. In January 2020 Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health published its most recent Capacity Master Plan, which forecasts future demand for medical facilities and professionals in the emirate. The plan identified a significant demand increase for a range of medical skills and specialisations from 2020 to 2030, including many full-time posts such as radiographer positions, from 124 to 1856; physical therapists, from 341 to 1568; ambulance paramedics, from 431 to 979; occupational therapists, from 351 to 837; and social workers, from 428 to 817.
Aiding already qualified staff is the trend of technological innovation in the sector. Technology will automate back office tasks to save time and costs, while technology can assist staff in patient-facing activities – but not replace them – because personal attention is regarded as key to effective care administration.
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