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Health care in the Middle East: An opportunity to innovate

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According to the World Health Organization, nearly five percent of the world’s population –about 347 million people — have diabetes. While this is a global health issue, it is a particularly significant problem in the Middle East.

A study from Rand Health Advisory Services notes that six countries in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia (first), Kuwait (second), Qatar (third), Bahrain (fourth), UAE (fifth), and Oman (12th) – are among the countries with the highest prevalence of diabetes in the world. The rankings exclude the Pacific and Caribbean Islands. Although many countries are facing this issue as a result of an aging population, countries in the Middle East are seeing cases of diabetes rise across all age groups. Moreover, diabetes rates in the Middle East are expected to continue rising over the next 20 years, including among children and adolescents.

Countries in this region are working to contain diabetes and related complications such as cardiovascular disease through a two-part strategy: integrating medical care to treat established conditions, and public health awareness to address lifestyle-related risk factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise. As they progress, they are finding that the Middle East offers unique opportunities to innovate, developing new systems that not only improve the health and care for their citizens, but can also serve as a model for the rest of the world.

Helping Individuals and the Entire Population

Many countries with established health care systems are trying to incorporate elements of Population Health Management (PHM), which focuses on improving the health of populations by providing the best care possible to individual patients. Countries in the Middle East have a unique opportunity to build a PHM approach from the ground up.

There are three defining principles of a PHM model:

  • A focus on the health outcomes of the entire population.
  • Coordination of health and medical services through the entire range of health care needs. This includes prevention and health promotion; curative care; disease management; and end of life or palliative care.
  • Proactively engaging patients in improving their health across all of the various stages of health.

Building Blocks of a Population Health Management Model

One of the foundational elements of a PHM model is a sophisticated IT infrastructure. Information technology that provides data access at all sites of care, ensures privacy and data security, and is simple to use can benefit clinical professionals, as well as patients. A strong IT infrastructure can help support health care professionals as they provide evidence-based care to their patients. With a significant amount of new medical information becoming available on a daily basis, decision support tools help clinicians process large amounts of relevant information, which they may not be able to analyze personally with their busy day-to-day activities. These tools increase the likelihood that an appropriate decision is made in the care for a patient, given the patient’s specific history, symptoms and preferences.

Making the Best Use of Health Care Skills

Another key component of the PHM model is making the best use of the varying skills of health care professionals. This is particularly true in the Middle East, as many countries have a shortage of medical professionals compared to other countries around the world that are facing these same health issues.

Efficient use of health care professionals emphasizes “practicing at the top of one’s license.” For example, primary care physicians would concentrate on patients with complex chronic conditions. Advance practice nurses would see patients with slightly less complex health issues and less severe injuries. Pharmacists would counsel on medication use and adherence, and health coaches would advise on health-related behaviors.

An Opportunity to Transform Health Care Delivery

The Middle East has a long and storied history of leadership in the medical world, going back hundreds of years. As these countries determine the best way to address their current public health issues – which are the same problems faced by countries across the world – they have another opportunity to influence the future of health care at a global level, and help lead a global movement to true population health management.

This column was originally posted on February 16, 2015.