How technology can dismantle healthcare frontiers

By Dr. Maliha Hashmi

Integrating fragmented healthcare systems may seem like a lofty dream in a world that feels more muddled than ever, but it’s already happening. In the GCC region, I am fortunate enough to witness these rapid changes firsthand.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the national Health Sector Transformation Program aims to restructure the health sector into a comprehensive, effective, and integrated health system. This ambition stems from the very top, articulated as an overarching mission: Saudi Vision 2030.

Vision 2030 is a transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is arguably the most ambitious agenda of any country in the world. Nothing will be left untouched, from sport to farming, in a bid to move the Saudi economy away from oil dependency.

Under Vision 2030, innovation, financial sustainability, and disease prevention will be prioritized while access to healthcare will be improved. Digital solutions and e-Health services such as telemedicine will be expanded, improving the quality of care.

To date, the Health Sector Transformation Program has already delivered successes, such as the Kingdom’s handling of the pandemic recently – one of the more effective cases worldwide.

The onset of the pandemic disrupted noncommunicable disease services owing to control measures and lockdown. Such diseases – cardiovascular, in particular – were major public health issues in the Kingdom.

The Saudi Ministry of Health (MOH) promptly embarked on medical technologies to ensure continuity, such as smartphone apps, and social networks were used to address public queries and provide virtual health services and support.

One notable initiative, SEHA Virtual Hospital, was introduced so that patients could consult specialized physicians without having to travel to different parts of the Kingdom.

The largest of its kind in the world, SEHA Virtual Hospital launched in the Kingdom with more than 150 hospitals connecting with more than 30 specialized health services. By using Lunit INSIGHT CXR technology, for example, SEHA Virtual Hospital was able to use AI to analyze chest X-rays, allowing pilgrims to be treated during this year’s Hajj season in Saudi Arabia.

We’ve been connected globally for years now through social media, so why should healthcare be any different? I believe we’re on the cusp of a revolution that will give rise to new borderless models.

Just as Estonia has helped transform the way we work remotely with its digital nomad-friendly e-Residency program, and fintechs are disrupting the way we transfer money, there is a very real need to dismantle frontiers to treat patients.

Imagine a patient in a remote part of rural Rwanda, for instance, being treated by doctors in Kigali or specialists in Geneva through a telemedicine service. All of a sudden, complex physical geographies and weak infrastructure become less important.

The innovations keep coming, furthermore. While the hype around the metaverse has died down since the fanfare of last year, the underlying technologies including VR and AR continue to grow in importance. Indeed, VC firms invested US$ 707 million into metaverse projects in the first half of 2023, accounting for 44% of web3 investments.

Today, there is immense focus on AI in particular. The evolution and use of generative AI through tools such as ChatGPT is surging, to the extent that there is industry pressure to regulate the technology before developing it further.

This brings me to my next point. Technology is only part of the picture. There needs to be the right backing and regulatory environment, especially in the context of digital health. All patients of all backgrounds should have access to health treatments, irrespective of where they are in the world, whether they are in the Sahara or in Singapore.

This is more than compassion; it’s the right thing to do. It’s also inevitable at some point, given the rapid technological changes. As technology advances, we must ensure that it takes into account everyone’s needs, free of any bias or preference.

In the spirit of inclusivity, all stakeholder views must be harnessed and acted on: patients, providers, physicians, payers, and of course governments. We must all be on the same page, and preferably before the next pandemic, through ongoing dialogue – whether these are multilateral talks at the very highest level or industry associations.

Moreover, it’s essential to recognize that the future of work, characterized by the ability to work from anywhere for everywhere, will not only empower experts to contribute to their own countries but also collaborate globally. 

In this intertwined future of work and healthcare, both domains have the potential to add new dimensions to the ongoing effort of removing healthcare boundaries and creating a healthier, more connected world. The part of humanizing technology and the importance of global collaboration in this endeavor cannot be overstated. 

As an advocate for change and inclusivity, I hope we can accelerate the conversation today so that we may arrive at new legitimate models or frameworks that we can all agree on, that the world population so sorely needs. 

My aspiration is to be a global bridge for health entities around the world, to be the digital citizen to create such a platform of exchange of ideas. This is who I am, I am creating this platform from my thought leadership.

The possibilities for the future of healthcare are boundless, and it’s up to us to shape a healthier and more connected world for all.

This article first appeared in Health: A Political Choice.

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