How digital technologies can improve Saudi’s healthcare system

02 May 2023 5 min. read

A report by McKinsey & Company has found that advances in digital healthcarecould help Saudi Arabia deliver billions of dollars in additional economic value added by the end of the decade. Ali Ustun, a partner at McKinsey in the Middle East, outlines how digital technologies can improve the healthcare system.

There is no substitute for the skills and compassion of medical professionals, but there is a role for more technical capabilities. New and emerging digitaltechnologies can improve patient outcomes in various ways. Saudi Arabia is well positioned to benefit. More than 90% of Saudis are connected to the internet, and they are accustomed to accessing public services through their phones.

By investing in digital health, the kingdom could unlock up to $27 billion in efficiencies and better outcomes by 2030.

How digital technologies can improve Saudi’s healthcare system

Four solutions – virtual consultations, self-care clinical decision support, and workflow automation – constitute a significant share of the $27 billion at stake. And the good news is that none of this has to be invented from scratch: there are real-life examples.

This will not happen automatically; it will take a coordinated effort from healthcare providers, payers, digital-health startups, e-commerce companies, retail conglomerates, pharma companies, investors, and even telecommunications companies, all of whom can play distinct and important roles.

Incentives require alignment to nudge practitioners in this direction. For example, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services allowed reimbursement for activities associated with remote patient monitoring. The idea was to encourage physicians to provide access to telehealth and remote monitoring services.

The kingdom did something similar in 2018 when it established reimbursement protocols for telemedicine visits for private health insurance companies. This same principle could be extended to other technologies, such as digital therapeutics.

For those services to be effective, practitioners must know how to use them. That means scaling up digital education programs that can build foundational skills. Finland’s University of Oulu has been working with medical education providers to school future doctors and dentists so that they can use digital tools. It also provides e-health training for current and future professionals.

Saudi providers could encourage greater uptake by giving no-cost access to telemedicine and other innovations. This reduces the barriers to access while also cutting costs. The kingdom already provides an array of free offerings, such as diabetes checks. The principle is to keep up with emerging practices.

Government support

None of this can happen without sustained and substantial government support. That means working with medical professionals to set goals for digital adoption, establishing policies that reward the use of these technologies, and evaluating how they benefit the healthcare system. It also means ensuring that everyone – hospitals, universities, agencies, pharmacies, and registries – is on the same page.

In a sense, expanding digitization in healthcare is pushing on an open door. SaudiArabia has had electronic patient records for years, and the pandemic did much to accelerate consumer acceptance. Saudi institutions are participating in partnerships that are researching initiatives in applying artificial intelligence to health and using data analytics in regard to preventable diseases.

At the same time, though, many people are unaware of the digital-health technologies that are already available, and government agencies could move faster to replicate successful practices from other countries and to expand the use of well-established digital therapeutic solutions.

Digital health services are no replacement for the human touch but used wisely they can help the kingdom’s medical professionals add more years to lives and lives to years.