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Transforming healthcare in the Gulf

The Gulf faces many new challenges in the form of a sharp increase in non-communicable diseases

Arjen Radder

Published: Updated:

Only a few decades ago, the Arabian Gulf was the scene of pearl divers, spice traders and sparsely populated nomadic settlements. Today, it is a dynamic, global hub for finance, logistics and tourism. Increased prosperity, however, has also brought new health challenges in the form of a sharp increase in non-communicable diseases and an ageing population. To realize its vision of a better future, the region should revamp its healthcare infrastructure, improve healthcare service delivery and empower people to lead healthy lives.

The discovery of gas and oil in the region has allowed its residents to achieve spectacular improvements in quality of life. The Gulf boasts world-class infrastructure and high material wealth. Life expectancy has increased from 42 in 1950 to 76 today and infant mortality rates have decreased to 0.9% from 19.8% a half century ago. Health insurance is mandatory in many Gulf countries and nationals and expatriate workers alike enjoy access to quality healthcare.

With their health systems overburdened and the prospect of caring for their ageing populations, the region has begun to take action

Arjen Radder

But the adoption of high-caloric western diets and a sedentary lifestyle have come at a high price. Calorie intake in Saudi Arabia doubled between 1960 and 2011, fast food has become a key food group and children are more likely to play indoors on computers than explore the outdoors. As a result, obesity and diabetes rates are now triple the global average, breast cancer cases increased 20% between 1998 and 2007 and colorectal cancer cases have more than doubled during that same period.

Human and economic cost

These diseases rob people of their vitality and undermine their ability to lead happy, fulfilling lives. But while it’s hard to quantify the human impact of this epidemic, it is easier to quantify the economic cost. Chronically sick people are not only less productive; they place a heavy financial burden on the government. The per capita spend on diabetes in 2013, for example, totaled $2,228 and $2,199 in the UAE and Qatar respectively, while Kuwait clocked in at $1,886 and Bahrain at $905.

With their health systems overburdened and the prospect of caring for their ageing populations, the region has begun to take action. In fact, the UAE has identified a world-class healthcare system as one of the six pillars of its ambitious UAE Vision 2021, while the Dubai Strategic Plan 2020 lists health as one of its priorities. Both plans include specific timelines and targets.

The health continuum

The measures that have been taken so far, such as awareness campaigns around healthy nutrition and offering children more physical education classes in school, are sensible starting points. To achieve their lofty goals, however, the Gulf countries need to do more. First, they need to replace the diagnosis and treatment centered model of health care with a holistic one in which care is provided across the health continuum. Focusing on prevention and wellbeing, and customizing the type and location of care to an individual patient’s needs will help improve the quality of care and ultimately decrease healthcare costs.

The private sector is a natural partner in this transition. We have been working with hospital partners in Saudi Arabia to increase awareness of healthy eating and lifestyles. Together with clinical partners, we have supported the use of healthy cooking tools such as low-fat fryers in the home to support patients who have or are at risk of diabetes. Preventative measures together with quality clinical care when needed will stem the onset of chronic diseases, and ultimately ease the burden on the system and ensure people lead healthier lives.

National screening programs

A second key step in improving public health is to launch national cancer screening programs, which lead to early identification and treatment. The UAE, for example, is actively promoting the importance of breast screening programs. Programs like these ensure that the population is aware and engaged, and that further follow-ups will take place by making screening more readily available with the latest technology and solid program management.

High-quality infrastructure and excellent services won’t be enough, however, to fight the Gulf’s epidemic of non-communicable diseases. Individual people also need to be empowered to lead healthier lives. The explosive rise in the number of personal health devices, which do things like track food intake and measure blood pressure, can do that. Rapid advances in technology mean these devices will become even more powerful and accurate assessors of people’s physical well-being.

Connected systems

But medical data in and of itself will not change people’s lives. This data needs to be interpreted by qualified physicians and integrated into the connected systems of the health continuum. These systems are currently being supercharged by advances in big data, which sees smart algorithms connect dots with a speed and insights that humans cannot match. This power will allow for early identification of potential health problems and a coordinated response from health professionals working together, providing for more effective medical attention.

The countries of the Gulf have repeatedly shown that they possess vision and wisdom in using their natural resources to the benefit of their people. Today, they are in a prime position to create a world-class healthcare system that will be just as remarkable as the gleaming skyscrapers that define the Gulf today. The transformation of the healthcare system will bring more social well-being and economic prosperity to the region, and may inspire the wider Middle East to pursue a similar course.

The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 takes place at the Dead Sea, Jordan, from 21-23 May.

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Arjen Radder is CEO of Philips Middle East and Turkey.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.