Arab Health 2022: UAE develops plans to offer more patient services in virtual world

Remote autism diagnosis the latest advance in telehealth on show at Dubai conference

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The pandemic has hastened a change in the way patients are treated for minor ailments, with plans to offer health services in the Emirates in the virtual world, or metaverse, for the first time.

The first day of Arab Health 2022, the region’s largest health conference, was dominated by new technology and the emerging trend of telehealth, where patients can access services remotely.

Metaverse allows users to communicate and move virtually, using three-dimensional avatars or digital representations.

Currently, the Ministry of Health and Prevention offers virtual customer service, but the trend is likely to develop further in the years ahead with virtual patient services in the UAE.

Covid has accelerated this kind of technology and we believe there is a demand
Mubashir Siddiqi, business analyst, Ministry of Health and Prevention

“This is the metaverse and people can use this virtual consultation when face to face meetings are limited, like during the pandemic,” Mubashir Siddiqi, a business analyst at the ministry, told The National.

“We have created this virtual environment for people where they can check in from anywhere, without the need for any extra hardware.

“All people need is a browser and a laptop with a camera.”

Consultations are conducted in real time. Online users “walk into” a replica of a hospital waiting room and sit at a desk in front of a medical consultant.

The office in the virtual world looks like any other, with chairs, desks and screens displaying medical information for patients.

Visitors have a face-to-face conversation with a medical consultant who is also looking into their camera and appears on screen in the virtual room.

Patients can ask for information on medicines, book appointments, make payments, lodge complaints and find out about MoHAP services.

“This is only for customer services at the moment, but we expect it to expand further,” said Mr Siddiqi.

“Covid has accelerated this kind of technology and we believe there is a demand.

“More departments will use this technology in future to avoid the need for people to come into the office If they don’t have to.”

Strong demand for telemedicine

An X-ray of a hand shown on an imaging machine at Arab Health 2022. Antonie Robertson / The National

A recent YouGov poll found broad public acceptance of smart devices and technology in the home, but some people were reluctant to switch to remote health care.

The poll asked 1,000 people in the Emirates about attitudes towards artificial intelligence and technology, with almost half preferring family medicine and specialist medicine and surgery to be led by people.

Services on offer in the UAE’s new virtual world will continue to be run by real doctors, but from a distance.

Dubai Health Authority launched its Doctor for Every Citizen project in 2019, before the onset of Covid-19.

Demand for services soared during the pandemic, with the service now expanded nationally.

The telemedicine service provided 83,000 remote consultations in 12 months from January 2020.

Out of the total consultations, 7,251 were medical consultations for Covid-19 patients and 13,437 were Covid-related consultations such as queries on vaccination eligibility and screening procedures.

An exhibitor displays the latest in medical technology at Arab Health 2022. Antonie Robertson / The National

Dr Waad Aal Ali, a family medicine consultant at Dubai Health Authority and part of the Doctor for Every Citizen programme, said programme demand was expected to continue after the pandemic.

“Most people we are seeing are Covid patients, so it is something we can diagnose remotely and offer the best care advice,” said Dr Ali.

“People can use the service, have their condition diagnosed and have medicine delivered.

“We know there will be times when we will need to see patients in person, but this is a first point of diagnosis that can save the patient time and make them feel less anxious.”

Remote diagnostic testing

Elsewhere at Arab Health, there was plenty of evidence to suggest remote health care and diagnostics would become a major component of medical services.

One of the hospitals exhibiting new remote services was the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in partnership with Emirates Health Services.

Doctors and scientists from the hospital revealed a new diagnostic technology to digitally assess Autism Spectrum Disorder.

A two-way camera to record a conversation between an adult and child can detect subtle signs in mannerisms, pitch of voice and use of language that could signal ASD.

Footage is analysed by machine intelligence to give an accurate report to medics for follow-up care.

“Diagnosing ASD can be an arduous journey for families, as qualified diagnosticians are in short supply and waiting lists for appointments are typically quite long,” said Dr Robert Schultz, director of the Centre of Autism Research, a programme at CHOP working to understand the causes of ASD.

“It can also be challenging to accurately diagnose autism because the clinical presentation can be highly variable and the field lacks objective biomarkers, and instead we must rely on expert clinical judgment.

“Objective diagnostic tests and biomarkers will allow parents all over the world to have their child evaluated more quickly and with better certainty, with the promise of scaling these solutions so that diagnostic testing could be done remotely with telemedicine.

“Ongoing work at CHOP has revealed several promising biomarkers for infants and toddlers, opening the possibility for much earlier diagnoses and interventions.”

Updated: January 25, 2022, 10:30 AM