The healthcare challenges facing the Middle East and what we can do to address them

A shortage of doctors, combined with poor habits, plagues the region, but there is cause for optimism

Instilling healthy habits in local populations remains a significant challenge for policymakers in the Mena region. The National
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One of the big topics of the moment as the world continues to move beyond the pandemic is the transformation of health care, whether at the Future Investment Initiative Forum, the G20 Presidency discussions, the Cop27 talks, Davos, Arab Health or indeed any other major forum that has taken place in recent months.

Regardless of the conference or conversation, everyone is talking about the transformations happening in health care. The pandemic marked an inflection point, forcing us all to reassess and prioritise, as well as to highlight the challenges in healthcare systems.

There is a race to design and develop the perfect digital-first ecosystem powered by high-end technologies, smart hospitals and virtual hospitals. This effort is advancing in the Mena region, in particular. As more elements of digitalisation set in, and more solutions are explored through different lenses, there will be a need to weigh in the current challenges that exist in health care to be able to create the most holistic patient pathways.

Let’s do a deep dive into the three major challenges that naturally come to mind when tackling health care in the Mena region as it continues to advance.

The first is attracting and retaining talent. Existing professionals will need to work with new technologies, and there is also a need to attract new talent. With more and more technological advances, there will be an essential need to pay attention to how the workforce will be transformed in the process. There will be a need for ensuring that there will be balanced inclusion of both genders and to reduce the discrepancy of knowledge between technology and humans. Consequently, the region needs more training and more focus on the current work force.

Global population growth recently hit its lowest rate since 1950. By 2050, the number of people aged 60 and over is projected to more than double, while the number of people aged 15 to 59 is expected to remain relatively static. There will be a shortage of physicians globally in the coming years, which is why it will be very important to have the workforce trained to use the new technology set within a work culture that provides attractive packages in order for the workforce to want to remain onboard.

AJMAN , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð May 12 , 2013 : Ali Abdul Karim playing puzzle game after the inauguration of Ô Brain Exercise room Õ at the Elderly Nursing home in Ajman. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News. Story by Yasin
There will be a shortage of physicians globally in the coming years

The second challenge is instilling healthy habits in populations. Despite advances in health care, life expectancy has not increased over the past 6 years due to physical inactivity, mental health conditions, drug abuse and chronic diseases. What’s more, the burden of chronic diseases such as diabetes is increasing at alarming rates worldwide; consider that 20 per cent of the population of the GCC region is diabetic.

Physical inactivity led to 5 million deaths worldwide in 2016, and by 2050 we are likely to see a reduction of life expectancy by 3 years, based on current trends. This will place burdens on the healthcare systems and the workforce within. We will need more effective and sustainable health systems that focus beyond the hospital, into community centres and home-care systems so individuals are empowered to take care of their own heath.

One of the biggest challenges facing the health sector in the Middle East now and in the next few years is the need for change in popular habits, diet and nutrition. The key to a healthy population is to have healthy habits, especially in the way people tend to eat. Yes, medical technology and medical testing are now easily accessible in the Middle East (as are the many fast food options and high fructose corn syrup). But there is more of a need than ever before to create greater access to healthier food and to pave way for the public for healthier living. Hence, one of the biggest challenges facing the region is educating its populations on how to eat healthy and maintain an active lifestyle. Doing this would also support individual empowerment and proactive prevention.

Healthcare systems need to focus on home care, and give individuals the tools they need to take control over their own health and well-being. Put simply, it will reduce the need for urgent medical attention while ensuring easy access to first-rate medical treatment.

Finally, the region needs to get better at managing burnouts, not just in patients and families, but among caregivers as well. Mental health has for too long been in the shadows, and most of the time it has not been taken seriously enough. Societal wellbeing is at stake, threatened by overburdened health systems and worsening mental health impacted by global issues. Left unchecked, it could become a major public health emergency in the years ahead. Doctors and policymakers across the Middle East need to further and extensively examine what needs to be done.

Wellness has emerged as a key talking point during and after the pandemic. Millions worldwide have experienced challenges resulting in an adverse impact on their overall wellbeing. With the world still going through multiple crises, from the economic to the environmental, and caregivers reeling from burnout, there will be major public health issues to confront in the years ahead unless and until we act now. It is increasingly apparent, moreover, that today’s systems and tools are either insufficient or overburdened, and that revolutionary innovative thinking and action are needed in a fast-changing, complex world.

In these increasingly uncertain times, the sooner we proactively seize the moment and accelerate health care's transformation, the better. The pandemic was a warning for us all. Let's heed this warning and implement the changes health care so sorely needs. Let more conversations begin.

Published: February 03, 2023, 6:00 PM