by Jamila Qadir

AI, VR and robotics shake up healthcare in the UAE, and the Gulf

Jun 29, 20207 mins
Artificial IntelligenceEnterprise ApplicationsHealthcare Industry

Government regulations and initiatives are a driving force behind the growth of the UAE's healthcare sector in general, and in the use of emerging technology in clinical settings.

Credit: 2020, Intuitive Surgical, Inc.

The use of AI, virtual reality and robotics for healthcare is gaining momentum in the Middle East, and in the Gulf region the UAE is taking a leadership position in putting emerging technology to use in clinics and hospitals.

Government regulations and initiatives are a driving force behind the growth of the UAE’s healthcare sector, and in the use of emerging technology in clinical settings. The UAE has mandated compulsory healthcare for all residents, and healthcare is seen as a potential moneymaker: Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC), launched in 2002, was intended to provide high-end healthcare services, as well as development opportunities to foreign investors.

The UAE healthcare market is expected to grow 12.7 percent, to nearly $20 billion by the end of this year, according to Alpen Capital. The UAE spends US$1,200 per person per year on healthcare, putting it in the top 20 countries in the world in terms of healthcare spending per capita.

While there are concerns about data privacy, machine error and lack of human oversight, the UAE public seems to be warming up to the idea of technology playing a big role in healthcare.

According to a study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), some 38 percent of UAE respondents surveyed agreed to have their hearts monitored by AI, while 33 percent agreed to have customised advice for health and fitness, and 30 percent agreed to have blood taken and tested by a robot.

Robotic surgeries praised for precision

The American Hospital in Dubai started using robotics developed by U.S.-based Intuitive Surgical to conduct surgeries late last year, according to Ahmad Fathi Yahya, the hospital’s CIO.

“We are using the Da Vinci robot to perform operations in neurology and ophthalmology. The robot, controlled by a physician sitting at the end point or even remotely, is performing surgeries,” Yahya said. “The quality of the outcome has proven to be much better than a normal operation because robotics can prevent the surgeon from making mistakes or warn them from making mistakes during the operations.”

There are, however, hurdles to increasing use of robots to perform surgeries. “If you look at the adoption rate in the U.S. and Europe, it is peaking up,” Yahya said. “The issue is that the cost of such operations is high, while the regulatory [process] — when it comes to approving it — and the insurance reimbursement are a real challenge. Also, the return on investment is usually a long one.”

The hospital will expand the use of robotics and AI, depending on general adoption rate, how regulatory issues mature, and whether rules for insurance reimbursements are in place, Yahya said. “The AI is still in a hype cycle mode but it will mature in the next five years to be used in radiology and screening,” he said.

The Mediclinic City Hospital, meanwhile, started doing knee surgeries using robots last year, and at the moment are mainly using robots to do orthopedic surgeries, said Ramadan Alblooshi, regulation sector CEO for Dubai Healthcare City, where the clinic is located. “The technology is still new in the market, but I think it will grow in a couple of years’ time,” Alblooshi said.

Healthech vendors look to seize opportunity

Healthtech vendors are also actively pursuing opportunities.  Makers of health-related AI XR (immersive reality) and robotics technology are starting to approach Dubai health authorities with the aim of doing business in the area, Alblooshi said.

Just about every major healthcare facility in the UAE is at least planning to use emerging tech, even if they have not started implementing it yet.

Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha), the largest healthcare network in the UAE, has not yet started using AI and robotics in their operations, but ideas for use of the technologies are in the pipeline, according to Bader Al Qubaisi, acting group CIO at Seha.

Al Qubaisi believes technology can benefit physician productivity and patient experience, as well as generate revenue. Seha has been working with Google and Microsoft to see how their technology can enhance healthcare in hospitals, he said.

“We have an allocated budget for new technologies.  We have a reserved capital fund for technology and for IT transformation projects. The technology is evolving now and it’s moving fast so like every three months or six months you can see a new technology that can enhance the patient experience within the hospital,” Al Qubaisi  said.

AI can accelerate radiology procedures

AI, for example, has the potential to speed up radiology procedures by 35 percent to 40 percent, he said. Seha is also working to see how AI may help develop programs for clinical care of chronic diseases.

Of the range of new tech applications for healthcare, AI may see the greatest usage in the near-term, due to UAE government initiatives. The UAE has aspirations to become a world leader in AI. In 2017 it appointed its first minister for AI, and has stated that the technology can create new economic and social opportunities for citizens, governments and businesses.

As part of the strategy, the UAE government will fund or enable pilot projects. These proofs-of-concept could be designed by public sector, private sector or consortia. AI can be applied to a wide variety of health subsectorsmachine learning systems become more precise as more data is fed into them.

According to Human Fatemi, director of Middle East operations for IVI Middle East Fertility Clinic, based in Abu Dhabi, the use of AI can help improve and standardize the current critical embryo selection system, which many experts believe is very subjective and inconsistent.

“We should continue to look into the benefits of fully embracing this technology and its impact on our efforts to increase our success rate. This will bring greater hope to many couples who are struggling to conceive,” added Laura Melado, an in-vitro fertilization specialist at IVI Fertility.

Healthtech gains foothold throughout Gulf

Though the UAE is a Gulf region leader in healthtech, emerging technology is also being increasingly implemented elsewhere in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, and more widely in the Middle East.

“We use AI and XR in all our operations within our hospitals. We aim to make all our  operations automated,” said Mohamad Khalid Batterjee, assistant CEO at Saudi German Hospitals, in Jeddah.

The group operates three hospitals and two clinics in UAE and a large network of hospitals in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the MENA region.

“Currently, we are using robots mainly in knee surgeries at our Saudi hospitals, while our Dubai branches will get the new technology within this year,” Batterjee said, adding “we are currently contracting robotics surgeries companies like Siemens, Philips and GE. “

In the future, in some areas like precision operations (heart surgery, ear surgery and others), doctors will be substituted by robots, Batterjee said. “The technology is evolving every day; we are living in a technology boom age and in the years to come there will be more use of the new applications in this region,” he said, adding that the main challenge is maintaining this technology and training people how to use it.

Healthcare facilities throughout the region are starting to take steps to train workers on new system. Seha, for example, is arranging training to prepare healthcare workers to deal with new technology.

Last October Seha signed a Memorandum of Understanding with North Carolina-based Atrium Health on bringing personnel from the UAE to the U.S. for research fellowships, as well as training purposes in areas like surgeries, including those involving AI, XR and robotics, according to Diane Lynn, director, Global Healthcare Services, Strategic Services Group, at Atrium.