popyconcept - Fotolia

Middle East healthcare on cusp of IT innovation era

Healthcare in the Middle East looks set for a revolution, according to the first surgeon to use Google Glass during an operation

The healthcare industry in the Middle East is on the brink of IT-driven change as virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), 360-degree video, 3D printing, nano technology and wearable devices combine to improve medical outcomes and drive down costs.

In the next three to five years, these technologies will cross over into mainstream healthcare services, according to Rafael Grossmann, surgeon, healthcare futurist and technology innovator.

“Many of these technologies are already being used successfully and people are not going to want to fall behind in terms of adoption because patients are going to start demanding this,” he said.

Speaking on the sidelines at Arab Health 2017 in Dubai, Grossmann said countries in the Middle East, such as the UAE, were well placed to embrace new healthcare techniques and methods. “Dubai has an ecosystem that is perfect,” he said. “Adoption of these technologies is more rapid in places like Dubai, which have the human and economic capital to make these things a reality.”

Grossmann said decision makers in places such as Dubai had a different mindset, and there were none of the regulations that sometimes hinder development.

Rapid advances have been made in the three years since Grossmann became the first surgeon to live-stream a clinical operation through his early adoption of Google Glass. Since then, the technology has been used for educational and telemedicine purposes.

“The development of augmented reality and virtual reality healthcare applications is a natural extension of this work,” he said. “For instance, using VR models and 360-degree videos, sophisticated medical procedures can be shared live with an almost limitless audience.”

Read more about the application of new IT in healthcare

VR, AR and 360-degree video have great potential for telemedicine and telementoring, said Grossmann. “You can imagine bringing any amount of surgeons and any amount of students to an operating room while an operation is being conducted by an expert,” he said.

“I first used Google glasses with a clinical patient in 2013. I simply put the glasses on and they were able to stream my perspective. So instead of having the students trying to see past my back to see what I was doing, I thought why not have the glasses stream my view. So they went to a conference room and I was able to stream my perspective of the surgery. I was able to explain what I was doing and they were asking me questions.”

Grossmann said virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing, wearable technologies, AI and nano technology were poised to drive an unprecedented period of change in the region.

As a healthcare futurist, Grossmann tries to ignite the interest of the public in how technology, used in a smart way, can make the world better, can improve healthcare and advance medical education.

Era of innovation

As the Middle East continues to embrace and implement technology to improve healthcare, it is on the cusp of an era of innovation. Within two or three years, said Grossmann, the region will see smart glasses being used in every discipline, including medicine.

“There are many smart glasses out there now,” he said. “Google Glass was really the first of many smart glasses. It really started a revolution and now other smart glasses are really taking over in many other industries, such as construction, design, entertainment and especially medicine.”

But although technology evolves very quickly, regulatory changes are very slow, said Grossmann. “So, for example, in the US, what we have seen is very slow, but there is certain progress with regard to allowing these technologies to be used on a clinical basis. Concerns about privacy and regulatory issues have decreased because the software has improved to become more secure.”

Regulatory frameworks

Grossmann said some of these technologies would be rolled out sooner in the Middle East than in the West because the regulatory frameworks were being established quickly. Governments, especially in the Gulf Co-operation Council, had taken the lead in driving digital transformation programmes to improve the delivery of services to citizens, he said.

For example, 3D printing has great potential and is being used already, said Grossmann. “I haven’t been using 3D printing myself, but I have been in the ecosystem where people are talking about it and 3D printing is really going to transform healthcare,” he said. “It is being used to print scaffolds where bio-tissue can be grown and become material for bodily areas. 3D printing has been used to print cartilage replacements of ears and noses, and so on.”

Turning to VR, Grossmann said there was a company that creates real virtual reality maps of the brain. “That allows the neurosurgeon to put on a pair of goggles, walk through into the neural tissues and go up, see where the brain tumour is attached and see the blood vessels,” he said.

Looking to the future, Grossmann said the problem of global health was a big issue, with 130 million people globally without good medical care. “One of the ways we can fill that gap is using technologies like virtual reality and 360-degree video,” he said. “VR, AR and 360 cameras have great potential for telemedicine and for telementoring.

Read more on Information technology (IT) in the Middle East