x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

New software cures old ills

Cutting-edge hardware has long been a staple in the arsenals of medical professionals but new IT systems are now bringing major change to the business of healthcare administration across the region, too.

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To catch a glimpse of how technology is playing an ever greater role in patient care in the UAE, consider the radiologists at the Dubai-based Gulf Healthcare International. The hardware they use to take X-rays and other scans is cutting-edge but the technology revolutionising health management today plays its role after the machines have done their job.

For example, Gulf Healthcare uses an information system that allows the results of all radiology, ultrasound and MRI tests to be stored digitally. Add what is called the "picture archiving and communication system" and the information can be transferred to doctors and hospitals electronically. "This allows you to compress data to pass it on" to any medical professional who needs to review a patient's files, says Mark Adams, the chief executive of Gulf Healthcare. "It also creates an appropriate database to keep tabs on your patient as circumstances change over time."

Such precise tracking also greatly reduces the risk of errors in diagnoses that can be the result of incomplete information. A paper-based system is much more likely to be problematic because data can be mislaid or inadvertently wrongly collated. While advances in technology have long helped researchers and scientists develop new treatments and medicines, until recently the day-to-day operations of healthcare providers remained largely the same: handwritten patient records kept in manila folders stored in filing cabinets.

But as societies grapple with spiralling healthcare costs, technology experts have created a new market offering healthcare providers ways to make their operations more efficient. The GCC, in particular, is an attractive market for technology businesses: the healthcare industry was estimated to have been worth between US$15 billion (Dh55.09bn) and $18bn last year and is expected to grow fivefold by 2025. Efficiency encourages quality, says Ameera Youssef, the business director at Acorn Research Group in Dubai. "[A digital system] makes the data more convenient. It's confidential and readily available."

Digitising the results of diagnostic procedures and the medical histories of patients is a priority at Gulf Healthcare, which is owned by the Kuwaiti private equity company Global Capital Management. Gulf Healthcare has invested about $100 million in 30 medical businesses throughout the region. As it has expanded, the company has integrated existing IT systems to create more efficient ones that helps cut costs.

Investment in health care is a top priority for governments throughout the GCC. Most are working with private companies to build clinics and hospitals that can care for thousands ? and installing the latest technology from the beginning, Ms Youssef says. Acorn Research predicts spending in the GCC by 2025 will top $57.3bn. Abu Dhabi, in particular, has placed a high priority on making technology part of its overall upgrade in the health care it provides for residents. The emirate is increasing its investment in healthcare infrastructure with plans to add 2,000 hospital beds to the existing 3,642 over the next 10 years. Mubadala Healthcare, a division of Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, has partnerships with international medical organisations.

One of Mubadala's key projects is the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, which is due to open in 2012. It is an offshoot of the Cleveland Clinic in the US, one of America's top medical centres. Even before the foundations are laid for the facility in the capital, technology is being tailored to suit the specific requirements of hospital staff, says Dr Andrew Fishleder, the chief executive of Cleveland Clinic.

"In this day and age of medicine, the model for practice has the clinical work flows and operating models intertwined with IT. "We will keep track of that information electronically and share it between doctors and patients." Technology is also an important part of operations at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, which Mubadala opened in Abu Dhabi in 2006. Two years ago, Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in the capital installed a "health information system", which replaces paper records with digital ones that are available throughout the clinic and hospital system.

By using such systems, administrators can prevent double-billing, misdiagnoses and ensure faster reimbursements. A more efficient practice helps to determine the quality of care, Ms Youssef says. But while administrators have embraced technology in healthcare practices, she adds that it is sometimes a slow process to get healthcare providers to embrace it. That is exacerbated by the fact that - tech-savvy or not - there are not enough doctors, nurses, technicians and other healthcare specialists. The World Health Organisation estimates that globally there is a shortfall of 4.3 billion healthcare personnel.

And there are limits to what technology can do, says Mr Adams. Automation will never be able to form the judgement of a trained doctor, he adds. @Email:ashah@thenational.ae