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How the UAE is addressing health security challenges

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the fundamental key to health security is a robust and resilient national health system.

Health resilience very much depends on the underlying health of the population. Maximising people’s health before a crisis, can mitigate the damage to populations and lessen the burden on health systems. Prevention is not only better than cure – it’s also more cost-effective.

The UAE is heavily invested in its healthcare system. Not just for health security, but also as a source for diversified economic growth. However, to achieve a sustainable health system, the UAE must address challenges specific to the GCC region.

Here we look at the challenges specific to UAE health security, and how they are being overcome with the help of innovation and technology.

Strengthening the UAE health system through digital healthcare

When it comes to health security, one of the biggest challenges for the Middle East is access to healthcare services for all. This has always been a serious problem for people in remote areas where healthcare facilities are scarce. 

During COVID, this challenge drove the accelerated development and adoption of remote technologies and e-services in the region. Patients were able to consult with medical professionals via virtual platforms and telemedicine services, no matter where they lived.

The continuing benefits of e-services have led to a surge in local interest, investment, and innovation in the telehealth space. It’s estimated that the UAE Telehealth market will grow at a CAGR of 25% from 2023-2028.

One of the top-funded healthcare startups leading this space in the UAE is Okadoc. The telemedicine platform enables services such as virtual consultations and document sharing to seamlessly connect patients with doctors and healthcare providers. 

The UAE government has been quick to see the potential of digital health technologies as a major contributor to health security. By the end of 2023, The MoHP plans to launch a ‘Smart Digital Health’ regulatory framework which will make some form of remote service mandatory for all healthcare providers in the UAE. These include prescribing medicines, patient monitoring, consultations and robotic surgeries.

Not only will digital technology allow better access to healthcare service for all, but also provide more personalised, preventative care, benefitting both patients and doctors in the long term.  

Data collection for more personalised, preventative care

In its recently published report Ready for the next crisis? Investing in Health System Resilience, the OECD also addresses the importance of actionable data that can be used to create a stronger health system.

As part of its Vision 2021 digital transformation goal, the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHP) launched Riayati, a platform which centralises patient data making it easier for healthcare providers to access medical records, saving time and money. Real-time patient data enables health professionals to give a more personalised, higher quality of care and treatment, providing a seamless patient care experience.

One of the most exciting collaborations in the AI and Big Data space is the recent MoU between Abu Dhabi-based Presight AI and G42 Healthcare. Combining Presight’s omni-analytic platform with G42’s health expertise, the companies are developing a foundational big data model.

Data collected from wearables, smartwatches and advanced omic applications can be used to improve early detection of health problems. Personal health analytics can also be used to make lifestyle recommendations to improve overall health such diet, sleep schedules, and tailored exercise plans.

Prevalence of rare and non-communicable diseases

To achieve health security, the UAE and other GCC countries must also address health issues specific to the region. For example, the increased prevalence of rare diseases in the Middle East compared to Western countries.

Better known as a COVID vaccine, Moderna (mRNA) also has the potential to work against other diseases. In 2022, Moderna launched a new programme enabling researchers around the world to collaborate on the use of mRNA technology against a wide variety of diseases. Such a collaboration could offer greater opportunity for the Middle East to explore and develop vaccines against rarer diseases that are prevalent in the region. 

Another exciting prospect is the advancement of genomics and precision medicine. In Saudi Arabia, Riyadh-based biopharmaceutical start-up Lifera has announced a joint venture with German-based CENTOGENE, a market leader in rare disease genetic testing.

The aim is to provide advanced data-driven multiomic testing services to patients in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries including the UAE. This partnership will enable faster, more accurate diagnoses of rare, metabolic and neurodegenerative diseases in the Middle East which, to date, have a high unmet need.

Genomics could also play an integral role in the research and treatment of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and heart disease. The main cause of these ‘lifestyle’ NCDs is obesity. It’s a growing problem in the UAE where two-thirds of the adult population are overweight or obese.

Abu Dhabi DoH’s Genome Programme is one such initiative. The national project uses data to help health professionals create personalised and preventative programmes based on an individual’s unique genetic makeup.

Local production of pharmaceuticals

The pharmaceutical industry is the pillar of any healthcare system. Without it, countries are forced to import at high costs and are reliant on the consistency and reliability of supply chains. So, to achieve a self-sufficiency, local production of pharmaceuticals is vital.

Much like food security, this has been a major challenge for the UAE. Imports of foods and medicines are around 90% and 80% respectively.

In a bid to become more self-reliant on home grown foods, the UAE has heavily invested in vertical farm technologies. Think innovative startups such as Crop One, Pure Harvest and Uns Farms. And the Food Tech Valley which aims to triple the UAE’s local food production through smart logisitics, R&D and vertical farming methods.

With an ever-increasing older population, the UAE must also look to boost its self-sufficiency and self-reliance on locally manufactured medicines.

The pharmaceutical industry in the UAE has amazing potential. Favourable government policies and regulations are attracting foreign investment, while promoting the domestic production of pharmaceutical products.

By producing generic medicines, the UAE has been able to reduce the reliance on imports while improving its credibility as a local manufacturer of high-quality equivalents. An example of this is Globalpharma. The Dubai-based pharmaceutical company has grown to become one of the leading generic medicine manufacturers in the GCC region, with a special focus on pharmaceuticals for ‘lifestyle diseases’.     

The UAE is now home to 23 pharmaceutical manufacturing centres with around 2,500 products produced locally.  It’s anticipated that by 2025, the UAE pharma market will be worth around $USD 4.7 billion.

The future of UAE healthcare

Ranked top of the GCC countries for best healthcare in 2022, the UAE aims to demonstrate its readiness for future health challenges, while driving innovation and technology in the healthcare sector.

However, there’s still much work to be done before it can conform with the OECD’s standards of health resilience and security. A major sticking point is the lack of workforce availability. To create a sustainable health system, the UAE needs to invest in recruiting, training and retaining health professionals. The growing adoption of AI in healthcare also means a greater need for data scientists, AI engineers and data governance experts.   

To that end, Emirate Health Services (EHS) has recently launched its Innovation Strategy 2023-2026. The aim is to build local skills, boost healthcare innovation and build a strong ecosystem for healthcare start-ups.

There has also been a significant increase in healthcare spending, which rose to AED 4.8 billion in the 2023 general budget. This is projected to reach AED 112.6 billion ($USD30.7 billion) by 2027.

The UAE is determined to become a leader in world-class healthcare. This opens up a number of opportunities for investors in the health space: from technology and pharmaceuticals to manufacturing health products and medical tourism.

A robust and resilient health system will not only help the UAE achieve health security but also contribute to its GDP, reducing the country’s reliance on oil-based revenues.

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