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Will telehealth ever replace human doctors? Middle Eastern health tech experts weigh in

Experts from the Middle East discuss the future of the healthcare industry that is undergoing a digital transformation.

Will telehealth ever replace human doctors? Middle Eastern health tech experts weigh in
[Source photo: Venkat Reddy/Fast Company Middle East]

Among many unbelievable feats, Money Heist Season 4 saw lead character Tokyo performing surgery on a bullet-stricken Nairobi guided by a Pakistani surgeon through a video call. If anything, telehealth has found its place in the plotlines of major productions. The Good Doctor is another show that has impressed with its high-tech virtual reality, preempting the outcome of surgeries. Shows like these hint at the possibilities of digital healthcare and its potential.

The global health crisis catalyzed the rapid adoption of telehealth across the Middle East, and it will continue beyond the pandemic. Experts say its success remains defined by the rate of adoption based on the region’s regulations and overcoming the digital divide.

“I don’t think any of us expected to see the adoption rate during the pandemic. None of us expected the pandemic either, but the scale at which people were willing to adopt virtual care was exponential because they didn’t have much choice. People were forced into pivoting, and we saw a gigantic spike in demand for online services than ever seen before,” says Brandon Rowberry, CEO of Digital Health at Aster DM Healthcare. 

During the pandemic surge, many people availed themselves of virtual consultations and experienced convenience and cost savings. Its popularity caught on in the region as people interacted with doctors on screens. The virtual healthcare industry emerged as a space for insurance companies.

“We’ve skipped a decade,” says Rowberry. But despite the popularity and sheer benefits of digital medical services — devoid of queues, appointments, and long drives to hospitals — the pandemic highlighted the critical role of human doctors who worked at their capacity to save lives. 

Naturally, as the waves of COVID-19 tailed off, the demand, too. But the effectiveness of telemedicine cannot be undermined. For instance, in GCC countries that rank high on heart disease and obesity indices, telemedicine can play an important role in preventing and predicting the onset of such diseases. 

IT IS PART OF THE FUTURE

The popularity of this field based mainly on convenience should not be seen as a one-stop-shop for critical cases either. “There’s not going to be a day where a human doctor’s out of a job because robots have taken over, but doctors will become more specialized, precise, and accurate with the technologies. Telemedicine will enable better quality care to more people across the world. It is part of the future,” Rowberry says.

Healthcare leaders globally prioritize investment in AI to optimize operational efficiency (19%) and anticipate doing so, even more, three years from now (37%). In addition, healthcare leaders expect to invest in AI to integrate diagnostics (32%), predict outcomes (30%), and for clinical decision support (24%) in the short term, according to a report

“AI represents an opportunity to improve healthcare by turning data into actionable insights that enable more precise and personalized care across the health continuum. Many solutions with AI already exist today, but the next step forward is integrating offerings into seamless and complete disease-focused solutions,” says Vincenzo Ventricelli, CEO, Philips Middle East, Turkey. 

During the pandemic, the digital interface’s advantage allowed doctors to e-remote into ICUs in different parts. “We built eICUs at Aster in India and parts of the GCC almost immediately. We will continue to operate some businesses that way. We’re growing those parts of our businesses for our hospitals. It’s also a service we offer to other hospitals to manage their load,” Rowberry adds.

Radiology and medical imaging are other fields that have the potential to scale with more digital interfaces. “That’s one of the key aspects of digital health; 95% of scans are already read by algorithms. We’ve got algorithms that are nearly as smart as the humans to look at scans, and they can do it faster,” Rowberry adds. 

STARTUPS BRINGING HYPERSPECIALIZED SOLUTIONS

While highlighting the pitfalls of the medical system, the pandemic also created opportunities for the SME sector to fill the gaps established medical institutions – stretched beyond capacity – could not. “Startups are wonderful because they bring new life and hyperspecialized solutions. We, as providers, are day in, day out providing healthcare to tens of millions of people. We don’t have all the tech solutions, nor will we build them. So, we have to reach out to the community of startups to innovate,” he adds.

Telemedicine in the Middle East and Africa is estimated to grow at a compound rate of 10.80% from 2021-2026 from $3.86 billion to $6.44 billion, according to an SLA Digital report. 

One telehealth solution that recorded a surge in demand was Qatar-based At Home Doc, launched in 2017, primarily offering doctors on-demand, prescription delivery, and laboratory home services.

“In the first year of COVID-19, we witnessed a surge, and it wasn’t that long when we had to put up with a six-month Black Swan phase starting April 2020. The Ministry of Public Health in Qatar had stopped face-to-face home visits as a precautionary measure to control the spread of the disease. All private clinics and hospitals were banned from receiving patients. This is exactly when we started communicating with the MOPH and acquired our telemedicine license to offer phone and video consultations to patients. Since then, telemedicine and phone consultation have become our specialty area,” says Hesham Elfeshawy, founder and CEO of At Home Doc.

Finding alignment with regulations in a space that is still new to the Middle East proved to be the biggest challenge. “We overcame the challenge by recruiting our in-house medical team of doctors and triage nurses; hence we got the whole facility licensed by MOPH. Regulations are generally a problem for any startup. This greatly impacted securing funds to cover our bold bet running a startup at such a high burn rate.” At Home Doc, which started on a self-funded model, raised $4.35 million from 10 institutional and angel investors.

Over the last three years, At Home Doc has focused on building the app’s “iceberg foundation” called Cranium. This ecosystem enabler connects electronically with insurance providers, pharmacies, laboratories, and practitioners, complying with the RACGP guidelines.

In 2021, the company began working on two front-end mobile apps, one that focused on patients that aimed to be the one-stop shop for virtual care from the users’ end. The other is for doctors, called Veedok, which aims to empower doctors to take charge of their own practice and interaction with potential patients. 

As of January 2022, the company recorded 37,500 app downloads. Elfeshaway says the company is preparing to launch a healthcare super app.

“We simply stand at an equal distance from three parties: patients, healthcare providers, and insurance companies, enabling the right symbiotic relationship that guarantees sustainability and best outcomes for all,” he adds.

“Healthcare transformation is about innovative ways to support healthcare providers. And it is about using artificial intelligence to free up the expertise of healthcare providers by reducing tedious tasks and connecting medical records and data sets to allow care to be extended outside of the hospital walls and reach patients at every step of their journey. By understanding clinical issues and continuous collaboration with customers, we are well-positioned to provide the connected care solutions that are already making this vision a reality,” Ventricelli said.

Meanwhile, Aster DM Healthcare’s Digital Platform 1Aster app is now live, gradually introducing multiple services. “It is expected to offer Aster’s complete range of services in the coming months. It would be a one-of-a-kind offering that would provide a single platform and a complete care ecosystem, enabling easy access to all our services. This will be introduced in GCC first and then gradually in India,” says Rowberry.

“Digital health does not give you the ability to get surgery at home. And that’s not the point, but it can cover 99% of services; it should be prioritized the same way as everything in healthcare,” he adds.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East who writes on tech, design, and culture. More

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