Health & Education

Digital healthcare in the UAE

The digitalization of the healthcare system in the UAE is gathering momentum in the post-pandemic climate, with officials putting their innovations in digital healthcare to use.

The memory of the pandemic is still vivid across the UAE. The unfortunate event underscored the importance of two sectors more than others: the healthcare and IT sectors. While the former fought the disease and saved lives, the latter came up with novel ways of doing business as usual at a truly challenging time in the history of the country.

Now that the crisis is finally over, we have the opportunity to reflect on those experiences and prepare ourselves for a potentially similar situation in the future. The combination of medicine and IT, which once saved the lives of many, will hopefully give us an extraordinary tool—a digitalized healthcare system. Such a healthcare system has the ability to keep the spread of diseases in check using IT-powered measures, while also helping the health system keep an eye on those affected by the disease.

Some of the IT-powered measures which were employed between 2019 and 2021 include the tracking of people carrying the virus, using national health records to identify those at a higher risk, and the customized delivery of healthcare advice, among other things. The UAE employed a variety of technologies such as AI, wearables, and blockchains to fight the coronavirus, and is now putting them to use elsewhere across the health system.

The Ministry of Community and Development (MOCD), for example, used distributed ledgers, a form of blockchains, to assign digital IDs and health records to the residents and citizens, thus keeping track of those who tested positive, those who were admitted to hospitals, and those who recovered safely. Such information was at times used to identify anyone who required assistance to survive the challenging days of the lockdowns. The same principles can be used to screen the population for other common chronic and contagious diseases, and even identify those at a higher risk for certain conditions.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP), meanwhile, used a blockchain platform to allow the doctors with the right credentials to file a digital prescription, while enabling pharmacies to provide the patients with pharmaceuticals in an error-free way.

The data stored in the platform can now be used for research purposes. It is perfectly feasible, for example, to go through the ledgers from 2019-2021 using big data techniques to determine what combinations of pharmaceuticals and measures were more effective across the affected population.

More importantly, the healthcare system is now redefining itself in light of that experience, giving a priority to digital solutions.

The adoption of digital healthcare is accelerated by the government and the regulatory system. The embracement of things such as electronic medical records (EMR) by the state as formal documents, has led to the widespread adoption of digital practices by clinicians. As clinicians have received ample training and orientation before each new step toward digitalization, there is hardly a hitch in the process in most cases.

The timing is an important factor when rolling out a new digital solution. Dubai’s Health Authority had been for a long time contemplating a tele-consultation platform, especially for the elderly and those requiring long term attention. However, the officials were not sure if society and the medical community were ready to embrace telemedicine. A telemedicine platform was finally rolled out in 2020, named “Doctor for Every Citizen.”

The platform was not only immediately accepted but was hugely preferred by many with an underlying condition who wanted to avoid in-person visits to clinics during the pandemic. Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health has had a more-or-less similar journey with their RemoteCare initiative.

What is more, the application of digital solutions never assumes unreasonable proportions in the UAE. Healthcare officials are well aware of the importance of the human touch, and telemedicine will never replace face-to-face visits. In many cases, in fact, tele-consultancy with a doctor leads to fixing an in-person appointment.

Also of note is the fact that the elderly, who form the majority of the health system’s clients, may not be among the early adopters of digital solutions. Low-tech channels of communication are therefore kept open parallel to the newly launched digital platforms.

While rolling out the RemoteCare initiative, Abu Dhabi offers the chance to everyone in distress to talk to a real nurse who will assess their symptoms and put them through to the doctor with the right specialty.

With the events of 2019-2021 acting as a catalyst, the health system has embarked upon a journey of digitalization across the country, though what has been accomplished so far is by no means the end-result. There is still a lot of room for growth in terms of policymaking, awareness-raising, and simply finding the place of digital medicine in the Emirati healthcare system. As new technologies are born almost every other day, digital medicine itself will evolve as the sector moves ahead. Human touch and human intuition, meanwhile, will always remain an indispensable part of the healthcare system.