“Now is the era of systems that learn. It’s like [sending] a child to school. You teach them to read and digest information. The difference is [the machine] won’t forget. They learn to the point of reading a million books a minute. You can use them to solve the biggest problems in the world.”
Lina Shadid, IBM’s public and healthcare leader for Middle East and Africa, was referring to one of IBM’s greatest contributions to the world: the Watson supercomputer.
“It is not replacing the doctor, it’s an advisor… [Watson] will provide recommendations, in the end though, it is the doctor’s choice,” Shadid said during the MENA ICT 2016 in Amman.
Watching other videos of IBM personnel discuss Watson, you’ll hear that exact phrasing repeated: We will not replace doctors. Watson is an advisor to the doctor.
The reassurance sounds like a polite company line because the reality for doctors is that their roles will dramatically change in the very near future, and Watson is only an example of why. The machine is faster and more accurate when diagnosing disease than humans.
One example is a leukemia patient in Japan who was not responding to the doctor’s treatment. At a loss for a reason why, the doctors turned to Watson.
“This patient had mutations in more than 1,000 genes, but many of them were not related to her disease and they were just hereditary characteristics she had inherited from her parents,” Arinobu Tojo, professor of molecular therapy told The Japan Times in August.
“While it would have taken about two weeks for human scientists to check which of the 1,000 changes were diagnostically important or not, Watson did it in 10 minutes.”
Health tech in MENA still small
Globally in 2015 nearly $5.8 billion was invested in digital health. But in MENA, health tech remains a very small space despite the undeniable opportunity to improve a lagging healthcare system in a region rife with diseases.
Illnesses such as heart disease, strokes, and diabetes are have increased in the region, causing higher premature deaths. Many of these illnesses can be prevented with better access to medical education.
“The average deal size to [health tech] companies is rising year over year globally. Most of these deals are in the seed rounds,” said CB Insights analyst William Altman. “But In MENA seed deals are going down… Innovation is taking place but not taking place at the same rate at the US.”
Altman said there were at least two doctor to patient portals in almost every MENA country, where patients and doctors can interact. “More than 40 percent of the digital health startups in the region have global application.”
According to research conducted by Wamda Research Lab, most of the health tech startups are in Egypt and the UAE and focused mostly on offering more access to online information for consumers.
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“There is almost zero Arabic [health] content that is evidence-based and from credible sources,” said Adnan AbuSharar, founder and CEO of Nabed.net. Jordan-based Nabed provides educational content to patients in Arabic and provides health practitioners with tools to better serve their patients.
“There is huge gap between what the healthcare industry is doing and the reach to the patients. We are trying to fill the gap... The medical community has been an obstacle rather than the solution,” he said.
Doctors are reactive in educating patients on healthcare and medicine. You have a problem and they fix it, rather than providing proactive healthcare. Health tech companies like Nabed and Altibbi are critical in serving the latter need.
In Egypt, Vezeeta allows patients to find doctors online or by calling a help center, read the doctor’s reviews by previous patients, and book appointment with doctors for free.
“We are aiming to digitize more and more transactions like scan bookings, lab results, storing health records,” said Dr. Ahmad Badr, COO and cofounder of Vezeeta.
In Jordan, the government has gotten in on the game through a program titled Hakeem.
“Hakeem program in Jordan has gathered 3.5 million patients records to be digitized in Jordan in its healthcare sector,” said Electronic Health Solutions CEO Feras Kamal. EHS is a non-profit technology company that provides automated solutions to enhance the quality the Jordan’s public healthcare services.
“Our concern is looking at the data… evaluating to analyze and leverage the data for prevention and predictive medicine,” he said. The data will help in developing better healthcare services for Jordanians in the long run.
Is Watson coming to MENA?
Not for many years. Altman said the biggest opportunity for MENA health tech was in mobile health.
“What device do we all carry around on a daily basis? Use the phone to convey information to patients every day,” he said.
But perhaps the brightest spot in a future of IA healthcare systems, is the democratization of healthcare. With Watson and robots who can perform medical procedures like stitching soft tissue better than humans, the future of healthcare is expected to be a more affordable, more efficient and more a equal one.
“[With such technology] everyone can afford the best healthcare… With data and robotics who have learned from the best doctors, everyone is getting the best healthcare,” said Dr. Anton Ravindran, founder of Rapidstart.