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Prof. Mahmoud Shaheen Al Ahwal

SAUDI ARABIA - Health & Education

70% of young academicians complete postgraduate training in Canada

Dean, Faculty of Medicine, King Abdulaziz University


Prof. Mahmoud Shaheen Al Ahwal is a Professor of Internal Medicine and Medical Oncology and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of King Abdulaziz University. In the early part of his career he studied at the University of Alberta in Canada. He is also board member of the Gulf Federation for Cancer Control, regional editor of the Gulf Journal of Oncology (GJO), editor in chief of the Saudi Journal of Internal Medicine (SJIM). In addition he chairs or supervises the Colorectal Cancer Chair, the Higher National Cancer Committee to fight against Cancer, and the Saudi Medical Deans Committee, among others. His work has been published in more than 70 papers in the field of oncology.

"Previously, only 1% of students published papers before graduation, and now that number has risen to 26%."

You are the head of the Medical section of King Abdulaziz University. How has this part of the University’s work grown in significance relative to its overall mission?

I joined the medical faculty in 1977, two years after it was founded. I have been with the college since the beginning. We used to rely on traditional curricula as our method of education and we used to have a well-known, world-class teaching staff, most of which came from outside of Saudi Arabia. At that time, the university hospital had only 250 beds and a basic layout and structure. However, the level of training was outstanding and the services provided were excellent. Since I returned to the Kingdom in 1992, we have not stopped developing. We went from an academic staff of around 50 to more than 400, and we have assistant, associate, and full professorships in all specialties and subspecialties. We send 70% of our young academicians to Canada to complete their post-graduate training, 20% to the US, and 10% to Europe and local programs.

The university has become a leader in medical research, and has also been accredited to a high standard. How was this achieved?

We have indeed become a leader in research, education, and community service. KAU was recently ranked 222 worldwide and number 1 out of Arab universities by The Times Higher Education. When I started, we had 50 academic publications a year, but now we are publishing an article nearly every day. Last year we had 472 academic articles published in peer-reviewed journals. We published in Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine, among others. We were the first to document the movement of Corona virus from camels to humans, a major landmark in understanding the mode of transmission of that epidemic. Previously, only 1% of students published papers before graduation, and now that number has risen to 26%. This is due to more commitment on part of the teachers and greater incentives. The more professors publish, the greater their chances of continued professional success. I am also proud of the fact that our faculty’s articles have an acceptance rate 100% higher than any other university in Saudi Arabia at North American Journals. My students are experts at research. I was eager to support this aspect of the university and thanks to the great support of and dedication of my vice-deans and department chairs, we have been very successful. We created a roadmap, and followed it. The other achievement that I am proud of, on the hospital side, is our Diamond level of accreditation from Canada International. We have also achieved JCI accreditation, which we are proud of. We also have institutional accreditation from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Canada, and we are the first hospital in the Middle East to achieve this. We consider accreditation a tool, not an end in itself. It is a process that allows us to maintain the quality of care and service we are proud of. This is the key component of accreditation. It also has substantial benefits for our students because it allows them to be trained according to the most rigorous standards and procedures. This prepares all of our staff to work with any North American hospital.

What role does technology and innovation play in your delivery of healthcare? The Ministry of Health has a sweeping plan to integrate more technology into the sector.

Technology and education go hand in hand. Technology has allowed us to achieve our goals much more quickly. Many new techniques and practices in medicine rely on advanced technology and we are dedicated to staying at the forefront of the field. Our health information system is called Phoenix, and we built it locally with the help of Al Enayah. We continue to develop and modify this program to make it fit our needs. We are planning on developing a new program with the support of the university and Jeddah Valley Company, and this program will give us mobile capabilities. We are particularly proud of how advanced and effective our materials management system is at the University Hospital, and how it has allowed us to substantially reduce waste. The Ministry of Health really appreciates the system we have in place, and it is interested in how many resources it allows us to save. By ensuring that medicine and tools have not expired, we can save 20-30% of our operating budget. Technology allows us to do this, and digitalization is the key to long-term success. Per our suggestion, the Ministry of Health is working hard to implement nation-wide electronic medical records. This will increase nation-wide medical systems and allow us to improve our primary care on a national scale.

What are your expectations for the plan to privatize the medical and education sectors in Saudi Arabia?

Privatization had been a major question, and I have been consulting with the government on how best to implement it. Honestly, there are a great many things that need to be completed before privatization can begin. The lack of an electronic medical records system is an example of where we need to go. The ICD coding system for diseases for the entire country is also not well developed. Privatization may help. We partnered with the government not long ago to run a government hospital that was unable to operate due to staffing shortages. It was a win-win because we were able to provide doctors and proper procedures while they provided nurses. This model was successful, and the hospital has been running successfully for over a year. We went from 150 to 300 beds and have been trying to export this model to other hospitals. In terms of insurance, a lot of work still needs to be done. We need to create the system while also ensuring that the quality of services does not decline.

What are your expectations for 2017?

We believe that the government and the university are on the right track. The government will be able to align society in the proper way, creating a self-sufficient system. We have to recognize that oil will not remain the core of the economy, and we need to determine the next step. Everyone needs to be thinking about the long-term. Those who saw that the economy and the society needed to change are in a much better place than those who refused to see it. From the college’s perspective, we have started to think about business. In fact, we will be meeting today on how to leverage the medical facilities to increase revenues. We want to utilize all our research centers in such a way that we can generate funds while providing society with much-needed treatment and advances. We want to provide world-class services in every specialty, and we are looking at establishing a private college of medicine. This infrastructure already exists; we just need to figure out the timing. This will insulate us from fiscal pressures in the medium term. We have a large staff nearly four hundred that has begun returning from abroad, and we will be able to utilize them well. We have all the staff and infrastructure we need to provide the highest level of services, now all we need to do is commercialize some of these services.



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