How the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the uptake of technology in health care services

Interview with Makarem Batterjee, President of Saudi German Hospitals Group
Telemedicina

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How do you rate Saudi Arabia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and what are the next steps for the country’s health services? 

Saudi Arabia’s lockdown measures were quite firm, and I believe this was an effective response: we have one of the lowest Covid-19 death rates in the world. The government spent a lot of money during the pandemic, which was employed in an efficient manner. I also think the authorities ended the lockdown at the appropriate time. 

Moving forward, widespread testing will be of the utmost importance, but it may lead to growing concerns as higher numbers of positive cases will be confirmed. The more cases there are, the more traffic we will have at hospitals. This could put more stress on the health care system. This means that temporary hospitals will need to be constructed, convention centres and hotels will need to be converted, and medical supplies facilitates will need to be built. 

It is yet to be seen how governments around the world will respond to this stage of the pandemic. The US is conducting widespread testing, and many countries are following this model. My hope is that governments will take a passive approach; if they start closing things down again, the economy will be even more severely damaged.

Will the newly introduced safety measures in response to Covid-19 lead to changes in social behaviours over the medium term?

Hygiene is becoming more important both in terms of protection, disinfection and waste. There will be greater use of disposable materials than before. Places of entertainment such as theatres and cinemas are not going to be as crowded, and the seating layout may change so that people are not so close to each other. Things will be different, but in the long term people will want to meet face to face: that is part of human nature. Eventually, however, things will return to normal – there is no doubt about that.

To what extent has the crisis accelerated the transition to digital tools in the health care sector?

We have witnessed a major shift globally. Prior to Covid-19 telemedicine and home services were available but not highly demanded, and the industry was thus passive in developing such technologies. Hospitals around the world are now using these services. With social-distancing measures in place, some people prefer to stay at home rather than go to hospital. There is thus a growing preference for telemedicine and home services. But even home services require interaction with a physician, so this service is seeing some reluctance as well. There is an increasing demand for and shift towards more technology-enabled services.

While people everywhere will use telemedicine and home services, their location will greatly influence the use of such services. They will be common for people living in second-tier cities and villages. In cosmopolitan cities, however, people will likely want to have virtual services with hospitals or clinics that are overseas. Prior to the pandemic, however, even major US hospitals did not have strong digital services, though this has changed and some are now doing it very well. We are seeing some collaboration in this regard as well; for example, we have a strategic affiliation with Mayo Clinic and are looking to increase our international affiliations.

Will the pandemic lead to greater investment in health care and increased uptake in medical professions in Saudi Arabia and the region? 

The pandemic will likely lead to both. Health care is one of the more resilient sectors during a pandemic. It is clear that the health care sector is stable, and therefore more people will be attracted to opportunities in this industry, be it for professional or investment opportunities. Technology will become of increasing relevance in the future. Telemedicine, for example, is catching on because people want to be more autonomous and independent when it comes to health care.