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Post-Pandemic Healthcare and AI Transformation: Lessons Learned in the MENA Region

April 29, 2021

While the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, it has had a catalytic effect on the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in re-shaping and accelerating the healthcare industry. AI and Big Data have headlined various discussions over the past few years in the finance, automotive, manufacturing and R&D domains among many others, however the adoption and proliferation of these technologies in the healthcare sector  has significantly increased in the past year.

AI-driven systems are now diagnosing patients faster and with greater accuracy, and on occasion, even before they reach the emergency room. This trend looks set to continue as the global telemedicine market is expected to reach US$185.6 billion by 2026, with a CAGR of 10.8 percent over the next five years in the MENA region. The question now is, to what extent will AI-aided systems replace or augment existing technologies as the role of frontline care staff is being reshaped by computers that can monitor cases, analyze data and directly deliver basic care.

Governments in the MENA region certainly recognize the vital importance of AI-driven systems in driving sustainable growth and value for future generations, across various critical industries including healthcare. However, to truly reap the benefits of big data, AI, data science and predictive algorithms, several challenges need to be addressed—technological differences, electronic health record systems, training and adaptation, data storage and data ownership, among many others.

Governments and regulators need to take a long, hard look at their data standards, on a local and regional level, and enhance data quality. Likewise other areas of consideration include development of subject-matter talent and experience, and of course, data ownership and security. Recent launches of the population risk management analytics platform by The Department of Health – Abu Dhabi and the AI Data Lab by American Hospital in Dubai to provide proven predictive model outcomes for improved patient care and reduced chronic diseases are steps in the right direction.

Better diagnosis and treatment, improved medical decision-making, better patient flow, patient monitoring and operational efficiencies, and reduced patient morbidity and mortality, are some of the key benefits of widescale implementation of predictive algorithms in healthcare. The mental, physical and economic benefits on patients – and as a consequence on regional economies – is massive, and as communicators, it is our responsibility to drive and inspire public policymaking that makes AI-driven medical systems a top priority for regional governments.

Telemedicine: Challenges Now and Going Forward

In the MENA region prior to COVID-19, patients had access to their physician via phone or chat. However, given the changing dynamics of tele-consultation, the economics of it and what patients are prepared to spend versus a walk-in consultation covered by insurance faces is the same dynamic. Patients are not willing to pay for a consultation, which prior to COVID-19 wasn’t a chargeable service but a friendly check-in with the doctor. Regulators would need to create a framework around what comprises tele-consultation and the role insurers would play in this domain.

There’s a cultural aspect where patients in the MENA region have to be educated about becoming comfortable in divulging personal information online, being transparent about the issue and uploading photos that are illustrative of the problem. Healthcare providers and communicators are tasked with communicating this as the new norm.

Analysis of online conversations by APCO Worldwide’s data team conducted as part of the MENA Tech trends report suggests that consumers in the MENA region are undecided on telemedicine. Although four times as many posts about the technology were positive than negative, the vast majority remained neutral. However, social media conversations are focused on health technology aimed at ending the pandemic, not the new normal that is here to stay beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gulf Cooperation Council member governments have made significant progress in recent years—launching their transformation plans, investing in technology infrastructure, driving data specialist capabilities, revising educational curricula and offering training. However, there is still a lot of ground to  cover to meet global standards.

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