The need to future-proof the UAE’s (tech) healthcare sector

05 August 2022 5 min. read

UAE has the ‘infrastructure layer’ foundation in place for a tech-enabled ecosystem, but must now further develop the ‘application layer’, writes Abbas Berdi, Head of Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences at PwC in the Middle East, venture capitalist and pharma startup mentor with the Harvard Innovation Lab.

Healthcare costs are spiralling at an unsustainable rate, and the often-fragmented patient journey is partly to blame. By shifting to an ecosystem that has digital services at its core, and taking a more cohesive, personalised, and preventative approach to healthcare, we can enhance affordability and keep people healthy instead of only treating them when they are sick.

Around the world, healthcare costs are climbing due to growing populations, increased demand, and greater spending power among the public.

Abbas Berdi, Head of Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences, PwC in the Middle East

In the UAE, the sector is booming, with over 150 multidisciplinary hospitals serving almost 10 million people. But as the average age of the population is rapidly increasing, so too is the number of people living with so-called lifestyle diseases.

As such, levels of chronic illness in the Emirates are among the world’s highest, and rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity – which the WHO estimates to be double the global average – are placing an enormous burden on healthcare services.

Traditional management of chronic diseases takes time, resource, and money. A patient has to physically move between primary care doctors, specialist visits, and diagnostic tests.

Effectively managing diseases such as diabetes therefore requires a coordinated, multidisciplinary effort, inevitably leading to friction in the sector’s ability to deliver care seamlessly, as well as cost inefficiencies.

This is as true in markets such as the US, where the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that $1 out of every $4 in US healthcare costs is spent on caring for people with diabetes. This financial burden extends beyond treatment of chronic diseases. Having access to some of the world’s most sophisticated medical technology is undoubtedly a good thing, but it can also add pressure to the system.

There is a trend in countries with private healthcare models for patients to refer themselves directly for specialist treatment, utilising services they might not need.

For example, given the option, people will invariably choose a sophisticated, expensive imaging tool such as an MRI over the traditional X-ray, even if not medically necessary. As a result, more patients are in our hospitals, leading to strains on staffing and escalating costs.

Improving the patient journey

So how do we improve the fragmented, physical, and costly patient journey?

We need to create a digitally-driven ecosystem in which the healthcare provision is brought to the patient, rather than bringing the patient – repeatedly, unnecessarily, and expensively – to the provider.

Spurred on by the pandemic, technology is already disrupting the patient journey. The use of virtual visits surged in popularity after the outbreak of the virus, with patients and providers utilising technology to safely access and deliver care. In the US – which accounted for the world’s highest number of Covid-19 cases – the use of telehealth was 78 times higher by April 2020 than at the start of the year. But this is only a small part of the journey.

For anyone diagnosed with a lifelong condition, collecting repeat prescriptions on a regular basis is a routine part of life.

The UAE has one of the highest numbers of pharmacies per capita in the world, but it also has one of the highest mobile phone saturation rates. By leveraging technology and investing in the development of novel platforms such as e-pharmacy apps, we can digitalise the process and alleviate some of the pain associated with this often cumbersome pathway.

Going digital will also empower the patient. Research published by Forbes shows that any form of technology which facilitates increased access to information gives patients better control over multiple aspects of their health, correlating to better outcomes.

Patients’ appetite for more information is undeniable, with the report noting that 83 percent of those surveyed would welcome more digital communication directly from their healthcare provider, including reminders to check their blood pressure or to collect a prescription – two examples which are inextricably linked to better management of their health.

The use of virtual visits surged in popularity after the outbreak of the virus, with patients and providers utilising technology to safely access and deliver care.

There are several forces within the healthcare industry that need to drive the change to digital. We must actively seek investment in healthcare tech that will support a more seamless model of care.

Governments must continue to make regulatory changes to support integrated data sharing, to facilitate advances in the interoperability of health information exchanges and patient apps, and to drive more coordinated care for patients.

The UAE is well-positioned to pioneer this technology-driven ecosystem in the region and create a future-proof healthcare delivery model.

Thanks to investment from the likes of ADQ, Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health, the Ministry of Health and Prevention and the Dubai Health Authority among many other entities, the UAE has in place the ‘infrastructure layer’ that is the necessary foundation for a tech-enabled ecosystem.

The UAE must now further develop the ‘application layer’ to unlock the value of this investment together with regulators, insurance providers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and clinicians to improve affordability, enhance provider productivity, and most importantly, improve patients’ lives.