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RIYADH: Saudi and British experts on Wednesday highlighted the importance of artificial intelligence and technology to enhance healthcare.

Taking to the main stage on the second day of the GREAT Futures Conference in Riyadh, experts from both nations shed light on the fast-evolving landscape of the health sector and the increasing role of the latest technology in that evolution.

A series of panel discussions revealed that the Kingdom aims to reduce waiting time and costs and improve the quality of life for its citizens through a strong focus on a more preventive, patient-centric system that brings quality care beyond the walls of the hospital and into an individual’s own home.

Inaugurating the event, the CEO of the Health Sector Transformation Program, which is part of the nation’s Vision 2030 directives, Dr. Khalid Al-Shaibani, said: “In Saudi Arabia, we have embraced digital health as a priority because of its potential to enhance healthcare delivery, improve patient outcomes, and drive economic growth.”

The CEO further posited that through a clear and unified vision, all sectors of the Saudi government are working together to make this future a reality, saying: “This initiative represents a bold and innovative approach where various sectors collectively work to enhance the health of our nation. By integrating health, equity, and sustainability into all decision-making processes, we foster an environment that promotes the well-being of our citizens.”

A future that, according to Al-Shaibani and his fellow speakers, including the UK’s Undersecretary of State in the Department of Health and Social Care, Nick Markham, and Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Homod, chief medical officer of Seha Virtual Hospital, could allow medical professionals to bridge the gap between primary and secondary care. 

This period, which is often characterized by an utter lack of awareness of the patient’s condition, could be supplemented by wearable technology, which could then track the patient’s vitals while simultaneously uploading them to a unified database, allowing for a clearer understanding of the patient’s progress before secondary care. 

Al-Homod noted that in secondary care, which could also become costly, innovation could further become an asset by allowing visits to be virtual, cutting costs and improving efficiency.

Highlighting the overall enthusiasm of the nation, he said: “It’s good to be here during this time and era if you are a company or a startup that wants to work in healthcare, there is a clear will and a clear strategy and we are focused on people. The healthcare ecosystem is hungry for innovation, and we think NEOM is gonna be unique and that Saudi Arabia is going to continue to lead (in healthcare innovation).”

Discussing areas of collaboration between the two kingdoms and the ever-present question of the use of AI, the undersecretary of state noted that the UK’s national health system, known as the NHS, has an extensive database, perhaps the largest in the world, due to its unified presence since 1948. 

This data could be “fed” to AI to allow for the detection of patterns that were perhaps previously not possible through merely the human eye. 

Markham said: “Actually, we can pull this all together into a fantastic set of data which can be used on parallel anywhere else, and we’ve got the diversity of the population as well because we know a lot of countries have homogeneous populations. You throw that all at AI and start to see patterns that we can’t see.”

According to the British official, this could serve to address long-standing medical questions, such as early detection of dementia and its treatment. 

Further affirming the collaborative relationship between the two nations in the field of emerging technologies, the head of the Research Development and Innovation Authority, Mohammed Al-Otaibi, noted that Saudi Arabia, represented by his body, signed a memorandum of understanding with the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to work on research and development in deep-tech and science fields. 

Looking to the future, Al-Otaibi pointed to the recently launched Research Lab Support Program, which aims to disperse SR312 million ($83 million) to 30 entities overseeing 86 research labs across the Kingdom to accelerate R&D in medicine and beyond. 

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