Improvements in medical research needed, experts tell Abu Dhabi conference

Medical research is a crucial part of developing the country's health-care system, officials at the fifth annual Seha conference said.

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ABU DHABI // More needs to be done to boost the quality of medical research in the UAE, experts say.

Improvements are necessary to attract more clinical trials to the country, which will strengthen health care and attract pharmaceutical investment, a medical conference was told on Sunday.

The Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha) has worked on setting up “building blocks” for clinical trials for the past five years, one way of catching up after implementing a health system “perhaps too fast”, said Dr Ali Al Obaidli, chief clinical officer at Seha.

He said research was an integral part of any healthcare system but was something the UAE lacked compared with other countries.

This is in spite of the region’s history of medicinal contributions, going as far back as medieval physicians Ibn Sina and Mohammed ibn Zakariya Al Razi, who put forward the theories of drug testing and evidence-based medicine.

“The tradition is there,” Dr Al Obaidli said. “But we are lagging behind when it comes to publication.”

UAE researchers produced 2,477 citable documents last year, but only 87 were considered high quality.

But the UAE is not alone in this trend – other Arabian Gulf countries are looking for ways to improve their research.

GCC nations are “not doing great” in terms of quality, said Dr Abdul Kareem Al Suwaidi, associate professor of medicine at King Saud University’s school of medicine in Saudi Arabia.

“We have to work on the number of publications, but also the quality of publications,” Dr Al Suwaidi said.

He said common obstacles for researchers included a lack of time and a lack of assistance.

Another part of preparing for medical research is setting up a framework for ethics. International bodies such as the World Health Organisation see ethical considerations as essential to the integrity of clinical trials.

Dr Al Obaidli said Seha had created institutional review boards to consider research applications.

He said they “usually follow” international standards, mainly the Declaration of Helsinki, a set of medical research guidelines first established by the World Medical Association in 1964.

Confidentiality is one issue the boards want to make sure is “fully respected” as the UAE tries to bolster medical research.

The Health Authority Abu Dhabi must approve all hospital ethics committees in the emirate that licence research, said Dr Mustafa Al Maini, the deputy medical director of Mafraq Hospital.

Seha officials emphasised the importance of clinical trials in providing the best possible care for patients.

But Dr Claire Bombardier, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, said observational trials – many of which are conducted in Europe, rather than North America – can be more patient-oriented, although they have more complex methods.

Clinical trials, usually funded by the pharmaceutical industry, typically centre around drug approval and are conducted in “ideal” environments at specialised centres, she said.

This makes observational trials – with their larger number of participants and community-based approach – more pragmatic in nature.

Dr Bombardier said observational trials as well as medical registries could complement clinical trials and help countries look at the efficacy of certain drugs and long-term issues, such as ways to improve the health system.

The availability of electronic medical records is particularly important for observational studies, she said. The UAE lacks a centralised electronic medical registry.

About 900 delegates attended the conference, Clinical Trials and Disease Registries, Dr Al Maini said.

Experts at the fifth annual event included doctors, researchers and other health professionals.

The two-day conference, which ends on Monday, at the Ritz Carlton hotel includes a medical research competition, which received 217 entries.

Winners were awarded in six categories on Sunday night, including best medical research and best health, regulatory or basic science research.