Though COVID-19 took the world by surprise, with devastating consequences, it has triggered deployment of innovative uses of technology, particularly in the healthcare sector. In the Middle East, the pandemic has pushed forward implementation of technology including AI, RPA [robotic process automation] and blockchain, providing a window into what the future of healthcare may look like, according to technology leaders at the recent GITEX conference in Dubai.
At American Hospital in Dubai, for example, management has approved bigger budgets for implementation of new technologies such as telemedicine, accelerating the hospital’s digital transformation strategy, according to CIO Ahmad Yahya.
“We are going ahead with aggressive implementations of new technologies right now. We are currently implementing a new MRI with [health IT provider] Cerner and AI at the core of it, an RPA implementation, and doing a lot of data analysis,” Yahya said. “We are investing a lot in IT at the moment.”
In addition to Cerner, American Hospital will be also using Amazon Web Services (AWS) for its AI implementation, he added.
Though he said that robotics and AI will play key roles in the future of healthcare, Yahya stressed the need for balance between machines and humans.
“If it is not a human-based implementation, it will fail. AI must enhance humans’ performance, not replace it,” he said.
Pandemic spurs use of cloud in healthcare
The pandemic has also fuelled adoption and interest in cloud technology. While every big player in the UAE healthcare market has their own data centre, there are a significant number of smaller organisations that want to host their systems in a major cloud service. Due to regulatory requirements, some data cannot leave the UAE, and so there is a need for local cloud platform for health services, Yahya said.
To meet this demand, negotiations are currently underway for a major cloud provider, possibly AWS, to build a UAE data centre to act as a common cloud platform for health services, Yahya said.
Overall, the pandemic has increased interest in medical technologies and led to an increase in investment in healthcare, with the trend expected to continue, according to a range of experts and entrepreneurs at GITEX.
In a panel discussion on how to prepare for future pandemics, Vèna Arielle Ahouansou, founder of Kea Medicals, noted that every pandemic is different and there is no universal cure for all future health crises.
“What we should look for is the use of new technologies and upgrading the existing ones to enhance the performance of healthcare services providers,” she said.
AI is key to tackling pandemics
The healthcare sector should adopt AI, particularly machine learning, to successfully tackle the problems related to pandemics, she suggested. AI chat bots for example, make it easier for patients to get information about hospitals and services, as well as make appointments, without leaving their houses — which is vital during lockdowns, Ahouansou said.
Another area where tech can play a huge role is telemedicine, which can bring medical advice to remote areas, Ahouansou said. “We are living in 2020 now, but looking into 2030. I believe that the healthcare sector should adopt more new technologies, and that is the future,” she said.
One emerging technology that got attention at GITEX was blockchain, which according to various speakers has the potential to revolutionize medical research, by providing, among other things, open but secure access to data.
Blockchain has multiple uses in healthcare
There are multiple uses for blockchain in healthcare, said Ali Loveys, managing partner at consulting firm BT Block Heath Group. Blockchain can be used for management and transactions involving any sort of fixed asset, she pointed out.
Blockchain, GITEX panellists pointed out, can be used in a variety of ways: to manage electronic health records, medical data, drug supply chains and clinical trials; assist anti-counterfeiting efforts; administer the allocation of donor organs; and improve insurance and billing procedures.
By 2025, the overall business value added by blockchain will grow to slightly more than $176 billion, and then surge to exceed $3.1 trillion by 2030, according to a recent forecast by Gartner.
The use of blockchain is still in the beginning stage, but Dubai has been implementing blockchain for public services recently, and blockchain deployment will grow over the next few years, with an expected 5% to 10% increase in usage in 2021, said Ramadan Alblooshi, CEO, Regulatory, Dubai Healthcare City Authority.
“I expect a significant change in blockchain usage in UAE in two years’ time from now,” he said.
In general, COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of new technologies, he said. In particular, it has highlighted the need to connect government and businesses for public services; and this is an area where blockchain — designed to provide a secure way for multiple parties to share data — can play a key role, Alblooshi said.
New regulations in the UAE regarding confidentiality of patient information will likely spur use of secure blockchain data-sharing applications, he indicated.
“As humans we need a trusted transaction. We need to trust a system to use it,” said Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi, director general of Nigeria’s National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). “Blockchain is a foundational technology that can be used in any sector and a system that can be trusted. In the words of former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, ‘What the internet did for communications, blockchain will do for trusted transactions’.”
What was science fiction yesterday has become reality today and things that were impossible today will become inevitable tomorrow because of the way the technology evolves, Abdullahi said.
Cooperation is needed for effective use of tech
Ultimately though, human cooperation and interaction is the most important factor in combating virus outbreaks, said Miroslav Kafedzhiev, vice president and general manager at Honeywell SPS MERTA (Middle East, Turkey & Central Asia, Africa, Russia & Customs Union).
During the current pandemic, technologies accelerated medical solutions and reduced the probability of a much wider spread of the virus, but technologies are developed and implemented by humans. They are successful when there is human collaboration, he said.
Human cooperation was key to sequencing the COVID-19 genome in a matter of days, while the sequencing of viruses up to now took almost a year, Kafedzhiev said, stressing that the future of medicine depends on human interaction enhanced by technology.