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Choosing Healthcare Technology Innovations For Your UAE Business Five technological developments that will contribute to public health and have an effect on the healthcare costs to business.

By Simon Stirzaker

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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We know that one of the biggest threats to businesses in the UAE is the rising cost of healthcare for employees. And technology is often near the top of solutions offered when this crisis is discussed, but what does this mean in real terms? How exactly can healthcare technology impact your healthcare costs in a positive way, taking care of your staff while protecting your bottom line?

We are constantly learning about innovations that will soon become game-changers for the delivery and cost of healthcare. In some cases, they are already changing the game. And the UAE is at the forefront of the development of many of these technologies. I've picked out five technological developments that are exciting both in their contribution to public health and their effect on the healthcare costs to business.

1. Artificial intelligence (AI)
This year, the UAE appointed its first Minister for Artificial Intelligence and set in motion a UAE Strategy for AI. The government clearly thinks that the ability of computers to think like humans has the potential to transform industry. We are not yet at the point where your doctor will be replaced by a machine, but they may use AI to assist in decision making. Deep learning, a form of machine learning utilized by the likes of Google and Facebook to analyze massive amounts of data and predict outcomes, is now being applied to diagnoze disease. It enables conditions to be detected earlier, especially those that are poorly screened for or hard to spot. An example is diabetic retinopathy, the world's leading cause of blindness in adults of working age. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, six of the 10 countries with the highest rates of diabetes in the world are in the Middle East, and diabetic retinopathy affects 19% of diabetics in the UAE. It is also very poorly monitored. However, researchers at Google have used deep learning to teach computers to diagnoze retinopathy from photographs of the retina. The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed the diagnoses to be above 90% accurate.

AI has great potential, but how happy would your employees be for a computer to diagnoze or even operate on them? More than you might think, according to a recent survey of 12,000 people across the Middle East and Europe. When asked if they were willing to engage with AI and robots for their healthcare needs, 54% said yes. A similar number (47%) said they were happy for a robot to perform minor, non-invasive surgery.

How could this help your business? With earlier detection and improved diagnosis, AI has the potential to improve the standard of care while lowering the cost. Diseases caught earlier means more chance of limiting their impact, both on the patient and on the cost of premiums. The big question is how far society is willing to let AI go.

2. Biosensors
AI would not be possible if it wasn't for the huge amount of data we are now able to collect and store. Electronic health records, insurance claims and biosensors all provide information about our health, fitness and the services we access. The last two in particular –claim and biosensor data– should be of high interest to businesses looking to keep premiums under control.

Most of us are aware of wearable biosensors such as the Fitbit. Wearables use pressure and temperature to help track our daily movement, our steps and heartrate. There is even a contact lens that monitors glucose levels. Internal sensors are quickly becoming reality too. These nanosensors can be swallowed like a pill or implanted under the skin to monitor the micro environment –chemicals and biomarkers– inside the body.

How could this help your business? Businesses already have the opportunity to incorporate wearables into the daily life of employees through their wellness programmes. This is becoming more and more commonplace, and where it has been monitored it has shown startling results. One large corporation issued over 23,000 employees with a Fitbit to monitor their daily activity and when they crunched the data they found that the programme had helped reduce overall health risks by 8.6%. Moreover, it had reduced healthcare spend by 3.5% and provided a return on investment of three to one. The big question for the future is how well we can integrate all the data to make a seamless claim and reimbursement process for workers in the UAE.

3. Genomics
There is a different type of big data that is causing a stir in medicine too: the information stored in our genes. This is another area being heavily invested in by the UAE, with the Ministry of Health recently revealing the UAE Human Genome Project. Already we have over 1,500 genetic tests and targeted therapies in cancer, which have kick-started a new era of "personalized medicine'. One of the biggest hopes for personalized medicine comes in the form of a system known as CRISPR. This can be used to "edit' small pieces of DNA in cells, similar to the way in which you change letters in a word processing document. It offers the potential to "switch off' cancer genes or replace faulty ones.

How could this help your business? Personalized medicine has the potential to treat disease more speedily and match the right treatment to the right patient. This will lower healthcare costs and insurance premiums by reducing the need for unnecessary therapies. The big question for the future will be how we navigate the ethical concerns of genomics, amid fears that a bad genetic test could render a person uninsurable.

4. Telemedicine and virtual doctors
Unlike AI, virtual doctors are very much real doctors. What makes them different is that they can be accessed via the Internet, using smartphones and laptops. Of all the innovations I've mentioned, telemedicine is the most immediate. It is already being offered to some customers in Abu Dhabi. However, uptake in the region has been a little slow, in part because of a lack of regulation or policies. In the WTW 2015/2016 Staying@Work Survey, of the 24 responders in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, just 5% offered telemedicine– well below the global average of 28%.

How could this help your business? An economic evaluation of telemedicine performed by researchers at the University of Miami in 2009 found that businesses that implemented the service enjoyed a range of benefits. Rates of mortality reduced, access to healthcare increased and waiting times and travel expenses fell. The average length of hospital stays and the number of referrals are reduced, while worker productivity is increased. The big question for the future is whether businesses in the UAE are prepared to implement telehealth.

5. 3D printing
Medical technologies are expensive. Many enter the market at a high cost and take years, if not decades, to become cost-effective. But 3D printing, or additive manufacture (AM), is quietly bucking this trend by offering solutions at an affordable price. Furthermore, it allows prescriptions to be precisely customized to the patient. Prosthetic limbs are already being printed, researchers have used it to recreate a patient's airway, and the company Organovo is using 3D printing to produce living human tissue for skin grafts. Neurosurgeons can print a 3D version of a patient's skull before operating and so improve outcomes; drugs can be printed to provide patients with the exact dosage they need.

How could this help your business? The possibilities are endless, but this makes it hard to predict the true impact of AM. Entrepreneurs are likely to jump on the AM bandwagon so it's advisable to watch the market. Within the next decade, you may be able to get your drugs 3D printed at your local pharmacy. The big question for the future is how the UAE will go about regulating such services.

Five big innovations – with many more to follow
These are just five innovations that I think have the chance to take the UAE by storm over the next few years. I could have picked from many others, including the use of social media to improve a patient's experience of their care, bedside testing and diagnostics (point of care) or even bioengineering. The rising cost of healthcare is a seemingly endless worry for businesses but the more we understand the types of innovation mentioned, the more that affordable healthcare for your UAE employees becomes a very real possibility.

Related: Reinventing Healthcare In The MENA Region

Simon Stirzaker

Regional Leader - Health & Benefits, Al-Futtaim Willis Co.

Simon Stirzaker is the Regional Leader of Health & Benefits at Al-Futtaim Willis, UAE. He came to the Middle East in 1994 where he was instrumental in the shaping and development of the health insurance market in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Prior to Al Futtaim Willis, Simon was the Regional Head of Development & Strategy for Middle East at the Royal Bank of Canada. He holds a BA degree in accounting and finance from Birmingham University, UK.

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