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Can healthcare in the Middle East be made more accessible?

With AI and IoT integration across various processes, healthcare is seeing tremendous change in the region.

Can healthcare in the Middle East be made more accessible?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Just a couple of years ago, the idea of moving healthcare from hospitals to people’s living rooms seemed impossible. Now, patients and doctors are far more comfortable interacting over video or text, discussing intimate healthcare issues, prescribing treatment, and conducting follow up.

And we are only getting started.

In the first half of 2022, the transformative power of virtual healthcare was seen with the launch of Seha Virtual Hospital in Saudi Arabia. The virtual hospital supports more than 160 hospitals around the kingdom and provides 15 main specialized health services, including critical consultations for strokes and kidney disease to psychiatry and medical rehabilitation. The hospital has a capacity of 400,000 patients annually. 

Dr. Al-Abdel Ali, the official spokesman of the Ministry of Health of Saudi Arabia, says the hospital has been devised to help citizens in all regions, “whether directly and in complete privacy for the beneficiary who needs care, or from by the system’ support from which the beneficiary receives the health service.”

Harnessing the power of AI, medical imaging algorithms, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things, the virtual hospital enhances the accuracy of disease diagnosis, enables surgeons to access advice, knowledge transfer via an electronic platform during intricate surgeries, and remotely monitor patients, track vital signs, and promptly alert medical staff when necessary. To save time, plans are underway to invest in deploying medical robots at the hospital. 

According to Vivek Shukla, Healthcare Partner at RSM Technology, Dubai, virtual hospitals are key to solving long-running issues in physical hospitals, like limited bed availability. “Health systems facing increasing disease burden and staff shortage can deliver high-quality care by investing in virtual hospital care.”


A study conducted by McKinsey & Co. reveals that digital health has the potential to significantly enhance patient services and well-being in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The region’s digital health market is projected to reach approximately $4 billion by 2026, driven by the growing adoption of online pharmacy services, teleconsultation, home diagnostics, wellness and prevention solutions, and chronic disease prevention measures.

According to Stephanie Nour Prince, Partner – Network and Operations of venture capital firm Nuwa Capital, the region is in its third phase of healthcare evolution. 

Nour Prince notes the first being the emergence of classifieds which then evolved into booking platforms, setting the stage for telehealth and services built on top of that. 

“So virtual healthcare [or variations] has been available in the region for the past few years.”

One of the main drivers behind this, particularly in the GCC, Nour Prince observes, is the availability of strong digital infrastructure, which has helped connect patients to healthcare providers seamlessly. 

“From wearables, digital health records, and AI solutions/integrations, the region has been quick to adopt modern healthcare solutions,” she says while adding that the pandemic further accelerated the adoption and the availability of new services.

In the past, before telemedicine, before the on-demand economy, there just wasn’t an alternative to centralized facilities. With radical advances, we see major hospitals and health systems launch programs where patients are “admitted” in their own homes and receive hospital-level care—administered through telehealth, 24/7 remote monitoring, and in-person visits.

The Mubadala Virtual Hospital, a telemedicine platform in the UAE, part of the Abu Dhabi Telemedicine Center, extends remote consultations and treatment to patients nationwide. Similarly, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) launched the Virtual Clinic, facilitating telemedicine consultations, online medical services, and prescription refills. Oman’s Virtual Doctor too serves as another prominent telemedicine platform, delivering comprehensive treatment options.

Sundeep Sahni, CEO & Co-Founder of virtual healthcare startup Valeo Health, says the transformation goes hand in hand with the consumerization of healthcare, with individuals taking an active role in managing their health and making informed decisions about their care. “By leveraging digital technologies, fostering patient engagement, and prioritizing transparency and value, healthcare systems and health tech startups can adapt to these evolving trends and deliver more personalized, accessible, and efficient care.” 


In the UAE, one of the first countries that developed guidelines in the region for telehealth, patient data is centrally connected. The DHA’s smart service, Doctor for Every Citizen, provides free consultation through voice and video calls 24/7. 

Another key initiative is the Qatar National E-Health & Data Program, which focuses on consolidating digital health resources and digitizing electronic medical records for comprehensive health monitoring and analysis at a broader scale.

According to Nour Prince, the digital health ecosystem is still in its early stages, with plenty of opportunities for investors within virtual hospitals and the wider healthcare sector. “As AI and its integration across various processes, robotics, digital twins, and other such technologies evolve, the medical sector will see tremendous change driven by innovation.”

The opportunity in this space is massive. The rate of startup launches, according to her, has significantly increased. “As these companies solve large challenges in healthcare and other industries, we are bound to see more impact on the wider healthcare space as more companies reach growth and late stages,” adds Nour Prince.

Big players in the healthcare space are making in-roads in the virtual realm by deploying metaverse. The healthcare facility at Medcare Women & Children Hospital offers an immersive and lifelike visual experience of the hospital facility to amplify trust and transparency. 

“In the future, traditional telemedicine services will be replaced by metaverse interactions, allowing our patients to receive a more tangible and collaborative service,” says Dr. Shanila Laiju, CEO of Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centers.

Currently, Medcare offers over 20,000 virtual consultations every year, a 62% hike from early 2020. 

“We are now entering a new era using technology not only for administrative systems and medical developments but also enhanced virtual patient journeys allowing for improved informed decision-making and better access to care,” says Veneeth Purushotaman, CIO of Aster DM Healthcare.

The spurt of virtual healthcare services in the region could hold the promise for empowered patients embracing digital tools and taking charge of their well-being, with access to all becoming a reality. “Delivering hospital-grade care to patients virtually will drastically improve patient experience and access to care in the Middle East,” says Shukla.

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Misbaah Mansuri is a UAE-based senior freelance writer who particularly loves covering topics at the intersection of technology and culture. Her work has been featured in the likes of BBC, National Geographic, and Digital Studio Middle East, among other leading publications. Gaming and technology for good spark her curiosity. More