Participants at Arab Health 2016 Show the Way for Health IT

Shameem C. HameedThe Middle East and Arabs have been part of American politics for the better part of the last 100 years. We have influenced the course of their history like no other nation, and they have influenced our foreign policy substantially for almost the same amount of time. We have always looked at them with curios apprehension even before 9/11 and the rise of ISIS. The current political environment is busy promoting the people of that part of the world as a bunch of uncouth, uncivilized barbarians. However, many Americans, and others in the West, know little about them. And this can be said about their understanding of us as well.

Time has come to take a revised look at these assumptions: so declares Arab Health 2016. Arab Health is the largest healthcare exhibition and medical congress in the Middle East, and arguably the second largest one in the world. It took place from January 25 to 28 at the Dubai International Convention & Exhibition Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). This conference attracted about 150,000 visitors from a region half a billion people call home: this covers Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and a lot of other countries.

Why all these people attend Arab Health? Let me give you a couple of examples.

Iraq: I met an Iraqi born engineer who lives in Herndon, VA. He worked for Northrop Grumman and for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Now, he is in Iraq helping set up a 300 bed hospital in Karbala. He is stretching the dollars for the project. The lowest quote he received for IT systems for the hospital was $1 million. He attended the exhibition to find a cost effective solution that will help him and his team build their hospital.

Pakistan: Nazir Ahmed Vaid is dressed in a typical Pakistani attire; a long upper garment and matching pants. He sports a long beard and is an elderly gentleman. It is easy to mistake him for a religious scholar, which he very well could be. His question to me was about how our company could help him.

He went on to explain to me that he had established the following structure in a few villages in Pakistan. There would be one male and female paramedic in each village. Why male and female? To be consistent with religious tenets where women have to be treated by women.

Well, these paramedics will evaluate the patient using telemedicine software that is programmed to ask follow-up questions based on an initial assessment. This file is then read by a doctor sitting in a major city who can, if necessary, ask for more data. This data is acquired using medical devices connected to the software. The doctor then goes on to prescribe medications or order other treatments.

I asked him, “but how about a stable internet connection?” He said they use satellite internet if nothing else is available. The answer truly amazed me for I am used to hearing people within the United States and other parts of the world complaining how they cannot implement a cloud based solution because they do not have consistent and reliable internet access. Yet here was an example of someone making it work where few may have guessed it would. I am totally convinced that cloud based health IT solutions have arrived: telemedicine presence in the remote villages in Pakistan is testimony to that.

The conference in Dubai was bustling with people. In fact, there were so many people that it was difficult to make our way from point A to point B. People came searching for specific solutions from Morocco, Zimbabwe, Iran, Libya and more.

Saudi Arabia has started a project to digitize their entire healthcare system. They have hundreds of hospitals and 2,500 primary health centers that they wish to digitize and integrate in the immediate term. UAE has already implemented a clearinghouse and e-prescription backbone for their healthcare system. More and more practices are adopting electronic health record (EHR) systems in these regions without a mandate from the government.

My takeaway from the exhibition is that we rarely see the real Arabs, the real Muslims-people who are making a positive difference every day. It is people like the Iraqi who starts a hospital in strife torn Karbala, and the Pakistani who implements telemedicine in remote Pakistani villages. that should inspire us. The work of the silent majority is being ruined by the deeds of a few. We should shine a light on these heroes. They work without the reliable infrastructure that we have nor do they enjoy any security. Their purpose is to save lives and deliver basic healthcare services.

I walked into the booth of the top three Western EHR vendors. These are companies whose EHRs cost US hospitals hundreds of millions of dollars each to implement. They dismissed us with a remark, “If you are a private hospital you cannot afford us. Only government hospitals can.” In all sectors the price of technology is coming down and the capacity is doubling except in healthcare. The purpose of healthcare is to benefit mankind. If that is so, our cutting edge technology needs to be affordable. If we cannot achieve that, we have failed everyone.