The MENA embraces more healthtech advancements

Various MENA countries have already started implementing advanced robotics and healthtech applications (Image via Pixabay).

The global healthcare expenditure will be growing from $7.7 trillion in 2013 to $9.6 trillion in 2018. Digital transformation is impacting the healthcare space far beyond the product by tapping into the information dimension, which is accentuating the global growth of the healthtech market, in a compound annual growth rate of 21 percent over 2013-2020 from $61 billion to $233 billion.

This wave is not only happening in developed countries as various activities are taking place to also involve less privileged regions, primarily in Africa and Asia.

PATH, an international nonprofit organization leading in global health innovation, by mobilizing partners around the world, announced ‘Digital Square’. The new initiative, comprised of over 40 partner organizations, encourages more efficient investment in digital health technology solutions in low- and middle-income countries through an innovative co-investment model. “Co-investment is a simple but powerful concept. Development dollars are scarce; by coordinating them, we can maximize the impact of our financial investments,” said Dykki Settle, director of digital health at PATH.

The initiative offers a platform for individuals and organizations to confidently coordinate their funding and technical expertise into a suite of proven, adaptable digital health technologies. These solutions can be scaled across an entire country, and even between countries. Digital Square also helps to support countries to develop the skills they need at all levels—from national government leaders to local healthcare workers—to bring these technologies to scale. Digital Square is a USAID program designed and funded in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

People in the MENA region
are more willing to embrace technology (Image via Pixabay).

The MENA market is ready

According to a PwC report ‘Middle East consumers ready to embrace AI and robotics for their healthcare needs’, a majority of consumers are willing to receive care from these advanced technologies, which are meant to disrupt the way people access and benefit from healthcare.

Another PwC report dubbed ‘What doctor? Why AI and robotics will define new health’, based on a commissioned survey of over 11,000 people from 12 countries across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, found that across the EMEA region, more than half of respondents (55 percent) said they were willing to use advanced computer technology or robots with AI that can answer health questions, perform tests, make a diagnosis and recommend treatment. This further accentuates people’s trust in technology which stimulates its broader reach, not to forget the ‘human touch’, which remains a key component of the healthcare experience.

Dr. Tim Wilson, Middle East health industries leader at PwC, said: “Whether we like it or not, AI and robotics are the future of healthcare, and the Middle East is poised to take advantage [...] When you combine clinical workforce shortages in the Middle East, with more positive factors like a young, digitally minded population that is willing to adopt AI and robotics, PwC thinks the Middle East could leapfrog other countries in these technologies. We would like to see the Middle East invest and become a global centre of excellence for AI and robotics in healthcare, bringing benefits locally and becoming a place that other countries look to for healthcare innovation.”

On another level, volatile oil prices have placed strain on the Middle East’s oil-exporting countries, resulting in a redoubled focus on economic diversification. The long term plans of many GCC countries include increasing diversification, attracting investment, growing the SME sector and private-sector jobs, and increaseing GDP and exports. Converging new technologies offer an alternative to traditional routes to development, and make it possible for countries to enter new industry sectors, namely robotics, with relative ease.

Execution is already on track

Different countries have already started implementing advanced robotics and healthtech applications. Starting with Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom announced in last October the building of NEOM, a city that will be powered by solar and wind energy, and is likely to have more robots than people living there. The U.A.E. appointed Omar Bin Sultan Al Olama as the country’s first Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, in an attempt to accentuate the country’s willingness to become an AI hub on all levels. Earlier in 2017, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) inaugurated a smart pharmacy with the first robot in the Middle East for dispensing and prescribing medication in Rashid Hospital. The robot, which can store up to 35,000 medicines and dispenses around 12 prescriptions in less than one minute, already started serving customers. The robot dispenses the prescribed medication with a click of a bottom based on a barcode, minimising any human error.

Wassim Hariri (Image via Wassim Hariri).

A new Lebanese hospital robot

Smart Autonomous System for Hospital Assistance (SASHA), which is still in the pilot phase, is a new hospital servicing robot created by Lebanese mechatronics engineer. In an interview with Wamda, Hariri explained that all robots that were formerly introduced in the medical care are only concerned with logistics. The operator needs to manually load the goods and then manually unload them when it reach its destination. However, SASHA’s new design allows it to automatically pick and place the meals, which enables full automation of food distribution in hospitals all the way from the kitchen shelves to patients’ tables. “The operator has to simply push the ‘distribute’  button on a mobile app, and the robot will take care of all the process. By this trade-off, I was able to eliminate human errors in distribution that might happen in the manual dispensing of the meals. The robot scans the room’s barcode to dispatch the correct meal to each specific patient,” he explained.

He believes that food distribution in hospitals should not be treated as a hotel service. It is rather a complicated process that requires the communication of various departments. At the same time, it is a repeatable action which can be automated: While the robot will be taking care of delivering the meals, nurses and service staff will have more free time to invest in patient care. “By introducing the robot we are reducing the time, the cost, and increasing the efficiency in terms of eliminating human errors in dispensing. The robot is also safer and guarantee the patient's privacy,” he added.

According to Hariri, unlike softwares, robots are physical and can execute specific tasks that help human beings. Hariri, who also holds a masters degree in automation and robotics from Polytechnic University of Torino - Italy, has worked as a robotics engineer for the past two years at a robotics company in Berlin, Germany specialized in developing mobile robots for warehouse management. For the time being, he is an international project manager at the same company and worked on developing and managing around eight mobile robots that are now in action mainly in Germany, Italy, and Taiwan.

SASHA can cater to various industries,
including healthcare (Image via Wassim Hariri).

SASHA can be altered in a way to service other industries besides healthcare. “The ultimate bold title when introducing mobile robots is time, cost, and efficiency. This is the goal for a business to develop. As long as this mobile robot proved its efficiency in a dynamic environment such as a hospital, it can be used almost everywhere, in warehouses, manufacturing, and aerospace, etcetera,” he explained.

Development and sales

The hospital robot’s first prototype costed around $60,000, including the R&D. It was financed by a German company called InSystems Automation.

Hariri plans on selling each robot for around $36,000, which makes it the cheapest compared to any other model on the market. “My plan is to start introducing this robot to the market by the beginning of 2018. The robot will be mainly produced in Germany , and hoping to find integrators around the world including Lebanon. However to do so, I need investments to proceed,” he said. Hariri is mainly targeting private and public hospitals, and is currently negotiating with two hospitals in the Gulf. Introducing mobile robots to hospitals in the Middle East is still new, which is challenging. However with the rising technology trend, people are starting to accept this by understanding its huge impact, he said.

When many are reluctant about the full integration of robots and linking it to the loss of jobs, Hariri believes with the emergence of this technology, human talents will be able to dedicate their time and effort to perform more valuable tasks.

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