The Middle East was on a transformational journey even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, where its healthcare system was concerned. The population – and the growing number of those with chronic diseases – had been rising for some time. This, coupled with a rapid and widespread penetration of digital tools and solutions into everyday life, was forcing the hand of healthcare leaders to accelerate the development of digital healthcare, to facilitate the improvement of patient care through digitisation.

Prior to coronavirus, however, virtual care technologies – methods that help bring provider-to-patient or provider-provider together remotely – were scarcely used. “This quickly changed when the pandemic reared its head,” says Lina Shadid, Health Industries Lead at PwC Middle East, which has been working with healthcare organisations to implement virtual care strategies in the region throughout the crisis.      

Virtual care: a helping hand in a time of crisis    

“COVID-19 brought to light inefficiencies in the healthcare system and one of the most glaring in the Middle East region was an absence of tools for effective, sustainable virtual care,” she says.

This necessitated rapid innovation and adoption of virtual care tools in order to continue to provide healthcare to those that needed it, and included solutions for virtual consultations, remote patient monitoring capabilities and the construction of ‘virtual hospitals’.

Some healthcare providers also found themselves turning to the distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication technologies – or telehealth. And this was happening not exclusively in the Middle East. In fact, a recent survey from the US reveals that approximately two thirds (67%) of healthcare providers surveyed predicted their organisations would use telehealth around five times more than they did pre-pandemic, with just one in five executives expecting their organisations to return to the primarily onsite working arrangements established before it.

Creating sustainable and effective virtual care

PwC has been doing pioneering work to support healthcare organisations throughout the Middle East in developing virtual care strategies. They have devised a virtual care maturity model, and a framework to help them create a clear strategic direction for their organisations. The framework explores eight key areas:

Strategy and governance As virtual solutions are now deployed throughout the region as a result of COVID-19, health providers should define the long-term strategic direction of virtual care. This includes creating a holistic virtual-care strategy to highlight the vision and operating model of various virtual-care initiatives.

Experience and engagement – A key aspect of sustainable virtual-health solutions is high adoption rates and good user experience. Simply replacing traditional methods (i.e. phone calls) with new technology (e.g. a video call, for example) will not be effective unless the entire user experience has been considered. In a region where interpersonal relationships are valued highly, those using the technology should be an integral part of designing and piloting virtual care to integrate insights and expectations.

Care model design – The acceleration of virtual care throughout the pandemic was mostly focused on virtual appointments. However, health providers should now identify other care pathways that can incorporate virtual care. This could include tele-ICU, remote patient monitoring and self-care tools.

Operations workflow and integration – The use of virtual care in 2020 was mostly related to the provision of health during the pandemic. Hence, it is now important to consider the long-term clinical and non-clinical workflows of the solutions to ensure optimal efficiency.

Revenue risk and progression – For both public and private health facilities throughout the Middle East, it is important to consider the sustainable reimbursement and payment structures for virtual care solutions.

Technology infrastructure and interoperability – A seamless, integrated and sustainable ecosystem can be created by using a digital health blueprint to define the infrastructure and interoperability requirements to connect current siloed virtual care solutions. A blueprint can be used to integrate the virtual care solutions with a health information exchange, which will facilitate access to a patient’s medical record or recent X-rays, hence providing personalised care.

Cognitive and analytics – Once the virtual solutions have been deployed and integrated, the next step is to ensure that advanced analytics and reporting can generate integrated reports to enable prediction and improvement.

Workforce and engagement – The final element of the virtual care framework relates to supporting the healthcare organisation’s clients through ongoing process improvement at all levels.

A necessity not a luxury

Being a global organisation and having learnt from similar installations notably across Canada, the US and the UK, has put PwC in a good place to help health providers in the Middle East, who often simply don’t have the infrastructure set up yet.

And this is important, says PwC’s Lina Shadid: “Looking forward, virtual care will become a necessity in multiple workflows of healthcare rather than a luxury. In fact, we predict that it will soon become a ‘new normal’ in the Middle East, with both providers and patients expecting some level of remote care and communication. Of course, the amount of virtual care that can be practically and effectively delivered will vary by both subspecialty and diagnosis.”

And PwC’s virtual care framework looks well placed to provide a roadmap for health providers across the Middle East, as they transition along the path towards this new normal.

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