Abu Dhabi boosts healthcare innovations with AI Lab at Arab Health

By Sangeetha Swaroop, Contributing Editor

According to a May 2018 report by global consulting services firm Accenture, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is set to give the UAE economy a US$182 billion boost by 2035 with healthcare likely to see a gain of US$22 billion in its annual gross value during the same period.

The UAE’s firm belief in an AI-based economy became evident as early as 2017 when it announced the UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy that aims to bring AI tools and technology to various sectors including healthcare. Apart from improving patient outcomes, the transformative power of AI in healthcare stems from the fact that it promises a life-changing impact in this field be it in hospital care, drug development, improved accuracy in the early detection of diseases, and data analytics powered decisions, amongst others.

Recognising the central role AI plays and the benefits to be gained from its use in healthcare, the Department of Health—Abu Dhabi (DoH), the regulator of the healthcare sector in the Emirate, is the first entity in the region to develop and launch an artificial intelligence policy for the healthcare sector.

In an interview with Arab Health Magazine, on the sidelines of the Arab Health Exhibition & Congress 2019 that concluded in Dubai in January, Dr. Hamed Ali Al-Hashemi, Director of Strategy at Department of Health (Abu Dhabi), outlines the latest cutting-edge AI initiatives unveiled by the organisation with the aim of spearheading the fusion of healthcare and technology in Abu Dhabi, and to deliver on its promise of exceptional quality of healthcare services for citizens and residents in the emirate.

“The DoH is committed to positioning Abu Dhabi as a hub for AI and innovation in healthcare globally,” affirms Dr Al-Hashemi, who oversees the strategic planning and performance monitoring of healthcare strategies, programmes and operations of the organisation. “We have put in place a robust roadmap to fully reap the rewards of this innovative technology, and are looking to harness the power of AI to transform the way healthcare is delivered in the emirate to increase positive outcomes and thereby, enhance our patients’ healthcare journey.”

Emerging technologies and healthcare solutions

To foster a new culture of innovation and inspiring cross-industrial collaboration in the healthcare sector, the DoH launched its AI Lab at Arab Health 2019. “This is a first-of-its-kind initiative by a healthcare regulator in the region,” explains Dr. Al-Hashemi. “With the launch of the AI Lab, we aim to develop healthcare solutions through emerging technologies including AI, Blockchain, predictive analytics and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), amongst others.”

The AI Lab will serve as a safe platform of co-creation where DoH as the regulator can collaborate with service providers, payers, and technology companies to develop, test, and launch state-of-the-art healthcare solutions powered by emerging technologies, he explains. “Innovation at the AI Lab will be focused on four key strategic pillars: wellness & prevention; chronic disease management; clinical care, and regulatory management.”

The first project to be launched under the AI Lab is the ‘My Health Coach’ app that is designed to help the people of Abu Dhabi live healthy lives. “This is a one-of-a-kind health and wellness mobile application that encourages patients and the society to optimise their well-being through an engaging and interactive platform,” says Dr. Al-Hashemi. “The app seamlessly syncs to the fitness trackers of the user’s choice and provides personalised, informative and anticipatory coaching and guidance, according to the data collected by users.”

Dr. Hamed Ali Al-Hashemi

The app is currently available for the 700 plus DoH employees, he adds. “After six-months, it will be available for Abu Dhabi Government employees. The app will open to the public by 2020.” Available in both English and Arabic, it is compatible across all major operating systems.

The second project launched under the AI Lab is the Cognitive Virtual Assistant (CVA) that seeks to facilitate easy access to information. “Powered by AI, the virtual assistant will be able to answer queries in Arabic and English with regards to facility and professional licensing to deliver a seamless experience for our customers,” he says. “In the near future, this CVA will encompass all DoH services.”

Integrating technological transformations in healthcare

‘Malaffi’ or ‘my file’ in Arabic, is the name given to the Health Information Exchange system launched earlier this year by DoH to streamline healthcare connectivity for the emirate of Abu Dhabi. “Malaffi is a new centralised platform that will connect more than 2,000 public and private healthcare providers in Abu Dhabi, which cater to the healthcare needs of more than 3 million people in the emirate,” says Dr. Al-Hashemi. “It is a revolution in the delivery of healthcare as it greatly reduces the duplication of healthcare services and also enables physicians to make faster, more efficient medical decisions. The end result is improved quality of care and patient outcomes.”

Malaffi has been developed to comply with emirate-wide and federal health privacy laws to ensure patient confidentiality and data security. It is expected that both public and private healthcare facilities will implement Malaffi by end of 2020.

Yet another distinctive advantage of Malaffi, adds Dr. Al-Hashemi, is that “through the benefit of syndromic surveillance that it provides, the government would be able to help prevent and minimise the potential spread of disease and management of chronic diseases. This will enable efficient emergency medical response plans in real-time to help prevent epidemics.”

Powered by real-time healthcare data

Abu Dhabi’s unprecedented shift towards technology and AI in the healthcare sector saw the launch of the Open Data Dashboards initiative at Arab Health. “This online portal,” explains Dr. Al-Hashemi, “will relay the emirate’s most up-to-date health statistics in a visual and engaging manner. The launch of the Open Data Dashboards was in response to the demand for real-time healthcare data, which will provide all key stakeholders in the healthcare sector with insights to improve access, quality and financial sustainability for planning and managing healthcare services. Users will also be able to compare selected statistics with international benchmarks on the same parameters.”

Accessible to members of the public, the dashboard will be continuously updated with real-time data drawn from DoH’s database system, which is powered by AI.

Paradigm shift in healthcare

“Today, AI is no longer a mere possibility; it has moved into the realm of tangible, measurable and scalable deployment,” says Dr. Al-Hashemi. “AI applications have the potential to improve the integral core of the healthcare sector by reducing costs, improving treatments, and bolstering accessibility. The benefits AI provides are slowly beginning to reshape the healthcare landscape as precision surgery and predictive diagnostics are leading to preventive care or timely medical intervention.”

For the patients, this translates to a more accurate initial diagnosis and a more effective treatment plan, he adds. “With AI, the physician has an additional tool to diagnose and help direct therapies for patients. AI is a proven, evidence-based scientific tool that improves accuracy in clinical decision making by unlocking the relevant information stored in staggering amounts of data.”

The increasing availability of healthcare data and rapid progress of analytics techniques are bringing about a paradigm shift in healthcare. “Breaking down, correlating and analysing data are generating new insights and can be turned into meaningful solutions or procedures that can impact millions of lives,” he says. “The top AI algorithms are today continuing to advance diagnostic fields leading to better outcome prediction and prognosis evaluation, and more sophisticated patient care.”

Yet another area where AI is making a major impact is telehealth and remote health monitoring, he adds. “This has the potential to significantly improve quality of life as the patient’s disease management is taken care of outside the traditional physical clinical setting.  By leveraging technology to monitor patients in their own homes, it helps them to better manage their own health.”

As AI cements its role in healthcare, the Department of Health—Abu Dhabi (DoH) is also making efforts to ensure that the appropriate policies and regulations are put in place and are designed to encourage the implementation of the latest AI technologies. “The future of healthcare in the UAE, as in the rest of the world, is through Artificial Intelligence,” states Dr. Al-Hashemi. “It has a critical role in vastly improving the efficiency, effectiveness, safety, access and delivery of healthcare services, and all types of population and patient research. Therefore, as AI begins to dominate fast-paced technological innovations in the industry, DoH has become the region’s first entity to develop this kind of technology policy.”

The policy, which defines AI as the ‘mimicking of human thought and cognitive processes to solve complex problems automatically’, also reflects the department’s support for the development, use and adoption of customised AI technologies and software to enhance healthcare in Abu Dhabi, he adds.

Risks of patient safety

However, smarter healthcare systems also bring in a host of issues, particularly those related to data security and safety. “These require regulations in place to ensure that it does not threaten patient safety or privacy,” he says. “Inaccuracies in the data will also be reflected in the results as AI relies on patterns in data to predict, prevent or treat diseases.”

Yet another challenge, he believes, “is the fundamental question of the adoption of technology – would the end user accept the idea of communicating with a device for diagnostic consultation, away from the traditional physical setting of healthcare? However, we know that AI is the way forward and it is our responsibility to ensure that the community in Abu Dhabi is geared up to adapt to this technology.”

Accordingly, the DoH has introduced several plans and strategies to facilitate the process and in doing so, to position Abu Dhabi as the hub of AI innovation in the region and globally. “There are three dimensions within the healthcare sector that we are currently focusing on,” he says. “One is the promotion of e-care, which includes telemedicine and telemonitoring or the provision of healthcare services via telecommunication and information technology. We are enabling healthcare facilities in the emirate to adapt to this while at the same time making efforts to address the patient safety and information security concerns.”

In line with this, DoH has implemented a Service Standards for Tele-counselling, which requires providers to adhere to its regulations in data management and medical record retention, he adds.

E-analytics or the use of multiple technologies and techniques to gain insight into the vast and complex datasets that are driving medical outcomes, increasing patient safety, improving the management and quality of care, and boosting financial viability through efficiency and cost management, is vital to improve overall competitiveness, says Dr. Al-Hashemi. “The DoH has vast amounts of data compiled since the past decade. What can we do with this data? One task of the AI Lab would be to collaborate with all technology partners to make sense of and define the opportunities of capitalising on the data that is going to be available.”

Finally, to further cement the position of Abu Dhabi as a global centre for innovation, medical and scientific research including AI and 3D printing, the DoH has instituted the Technology Innovation Pioneers (TIP) Healthcare Awards to provide an innovation ecosystem to accelerate research and create innovative solutions towards key healthcare challenges. “We are the first government entity that has established a link between investors and healthcare innovators and this platform will allow innovators to share and develop ideas. They will also receive the necessary support to take these ideas to fruition, further enhancing healthcare outcomes,” says Dr. Al-Hashemi.

He adds: “We believe that innovators will lead the development and growth of the sector. Leveraging advancements from artificial intelligence and technology will pave the way for better diagnosis and advanced medical treatments. By finding creative solutions for some of the main healthcare challenges, Abu Dhabi thus seeks to enhance its position as a pioneer in healthcare innovation.”