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February 13, 2015
This article was originally published by Gulf News.
All the evidence suggests that 20th century methods of tracking and preventing the prevalence of chronic illnesses and threat of infectious diseases are no match for 21stcentury health threats. Greater mobility, higher calorific foods, increased life expectancy and more sedentary lifestyles are fueling the rise of epidemics and chronic diseases.
These trends are particularly stark in the Gulf. Today, of the world’s top ten countries for diabetes prevalence, six are from the GCC and in the UAE alone, the burden of diabetes may cost up to USD 8.5 billion by 2020. But against this backdrop, the GCC is presented with an opportunity. Through commitments to smart services and a more connected society the GCC countries can redefine the way they track, monitor, interpret and respond to the disease profile of a growing population and prevent a toll on fiscal health as well as quality of life.
The key lies in an ability to predict.
In order for governments to intervene more effectively they must deploy more sophisticated methods of analysis to interpret complex and unstructured data. That may seem obvious, but this opportunity is not being fully realized. While the use of big data in healthcare has been much talked about, there is a need for dialog around redefining the parameters of big data in order to fully realize the competitive advantage it offers.
This paradigm shift in the way we monitor public health threats is not a distant dream, but a present day reality.
Health monitoring sites such as Epidemico’s Healthmap, Google’s Flu Trends and the Global Public Health Intelligence Network are disrupting existing detection methods and changing the way global health authorities track – and predict – potential threats. Healthmap’s early detection of the threat of Ebola came before formal channels were alert to the issue. And with a death toll now approaching 9,000 and a potential global impact of USD32 billion within two years, it’s proving costly to overlook such intelligence.
Closer to home, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), continues to threaten the regional population – particularly in Saudi Arabia. According to the World Health Organization 636 laboratory cases of the infection were officially reported as of May last year, with 193 confirmed fatalities. By the start of this year, that number had grown to 955 confirmed cases and 351 deaths – a mortality rate of 35 percent. A vaccine seems the obvious solution to the problem, but as many health experts have pointed out, it may cost as much as half a billion dollars and take years to develop a suitable vaccine. Such preventative measures in a rapidly urbanizing population come at a cost – to lives and budgets.
What’s required is a cohesive, data-driven public health strategy that is integrated with a national e-health mandate – allowing governments to get out in front of such outbreaks and intervene to mitigate their impact. This is no easy task. It requires the establishment of an IT and big data infrastructure that is characterized by intelligent, robust and reliable systems capable of cleaning out ‘noise’ to synthesize huge volumes of complex data to interpret health trends and identify threats.
Public health agencies must grow and expand their capabilities to include expertise in healthcare analytics, and develop a 21st century armory of lab-based and digital tools, that connect information from epidemiologists, microbiologists, geneticists, virologists, with statistical and mathematical analysis, behavioral science, and social and economic data.
Where patient privacy and data security hurdles exist, public health agencies must recognize the necessity of data philanthropy and commit to the creation of an ecosystem that channels this data for the benefit of the global population.
The importance of this data-driven culture of information across the public health continuum must be embedded within this week’s discourse during Arab Health. It’s time we recognized that there are tools available to us that aren’t currently being utilized, that can mitigate the threat of chronic illness and epidemics and reduce healthcare spending across the GCC.
Managing the soaring cost of health for a dynamic and rapidly expanding population is one of the defining challenges for the GCC this century. If what we need is more sustainable healthcare strategies, we must be prepared to reevaluate current methods, and recognize the answer lies in predictive intelligence through a more connected, innovation-led commitment to disease control.
Emile Salhab is a Principal with Booz Allen Hamilton’s Healthcare practice and Atif Kureishy is a Principal from the company’s Technology and Analytics practice. Both are based in the Middle East.