Saudi Arabia’s healthcare transformation is a comprehensive undertaking. The nation’s dedication to enhancing healthcare accessibility, quality, and innovation has the potential to elevate the well-being of its citizens and make a significant impact on the global healthcare landscape. The healthcare and life sciences sector accounted for 14.5 per cent of the country’s budget expenditure in 2022, making it the third-largest recipient of government funds with US$36.8 billion.
At the core of Saudi Arabia’s healthcare transformation is Vision 2030, which prioritises health and wellness as a fundamental component of the nation’s economic diversification. This healthcare transformation has led to the Ministry of Health taking on a new role. Previously, the Ministry of Health was the regulator, provider and the payer. However, the role has now been broken down into three main entities. The Ministry of Health will be the sole regulator, and the Health Holding Company will become the provider and take ownership of the over 20 clusters across five regions, which will ultimately become accountable care organisations (ACOs). The payer will become the national insurance system.
At the Global Health Exhibition taking place between October 29 to 31 in Riyadh, Omnia Health spoke to Dr. Samar Nassar, Managing Director, Healthcare, Ministry of Investment, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to get an insight into the investments being made into the healthcare industry, both in terms of infrastructure and in state-of-the-art medical technologies and services.
She said: “We are working towards achieving universal health coverage where healthcare becomes equitable across different regions and the entire population of Saudi Arabia. That is the ultimate goal, which won’t happen overnight, so it is essential to navigate the system efficiently.” Excerpts:
Could you shed light on Saudi Arabia’s healthcare industry’s current trends and growth potential?
The way we identify growth in the market is through analysing value chain gaps. We look at this from the lens of healthcare provision or services, from primary to tertiary care also out of hospital care. Currently, some of the high-priority areas in the industry include mental health-specific rehabilitation centres, as there is a gap in the availability of specialised and standalone centres.
In terms of medical devices and technologies, we look at the value chain all the way from R&D to commercialisation. The segment where we see growth is in manufacturing. We are working with large Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and contracting manufacturers (CMOs) to localise and specifically manufacture medical devices. Within that, there are several layers of opportunities.
For example, we had a recent success story with the joint venture between the American firm Medtronic and Pioneers Systems, a local Saudi company. The companies collaborated to assemble the first production line of basic portable ventilators in Saudi Arabia and then moved to the advanced Intensive Care ventilator. We want to replicate this story with other OEMs, whether jointly with a local facility or company looking to expand or start from scratch.
Within the digital health space, we are primarily looking at emerging technologies. Last year, we worked with Digital Diagnostics to deploy their autonomous AI platform that detects diabetic retinopathy, susceptibility or probability of blindness in people with diabetes. There is a very high prevalence of diabetes in the Kingdom, with reportedly one in five suffering from it. We increase the chances of early detection and prevention by embedding these technologies in regular chronic disease check-ups at primary care centres. Also, these technologies are user-friendly and require simple training, which a technician or nurse could assist with.
Another example is the work we did with a company called Bexa. Their solution is a pressure sensor that predicts masses within the breast and offers accurate and pain-free breast exams without radiation. We successfully helped them pilot at the women’s health clinic in Riyadh’s Hayat Mall as a part of the National Breast Screening programme run by the Ministry of Health. The programme screened more than 300 women in over two months. We are looking at ways to deploy them within the private sector, help them with their clinical licencing and reimbursement to enable them as it will help detect breast cancer earlier and bring down the cost burden.
Within the pharmaceutical industry, we are looking at localising drug manufacturing. If we combine pharma and MedTech, manufacturing is the most significant overarching theme. We are looking at building an ecosystem, lowering business costs and building the capabilities within the healthcare value chain.
Dr. Samar Nassar
What potential barriers do companies face while trying to enter the Saudi Arabian healthcare market?
Currently, the healthcare sector in Saudi Arabia is undergoing a massive transformation, and we are in the middle of the shift. Everything we see right now will not be there in a couple of years. And because we’re in a transition phase, it can be hard to navigate the system. This is where the Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia (MISA) steps in, and our role becomes critical in holding the hands of investors in cross-matching OEMs with local facilities for instance.
Another barrier is small businesses or start-ups around emerging technology, where the type of licences that exist right now in the system are not applicable to them. So, we need to start thinking about how we can bridge the gap using innovation, deploy these emerging technologies and create the required regulatory reforms, licencing and policies which keep data privacy, the governance of data, and the security around patient data and privacy, at the heart of it. All these developments are in progress, but we need to work around them in the meantime.
One of the biggest gaps in healthcare is around the availability of the workforce. MISA plays an important role here as we provide financial, non-financial, or sector-specific incentives. However, we require feasibility for us to be able to qualify and quantify the business case. All this information is available on Invest Saudi, as we want investors to have visibility and access to these details online.
What are your thoughts on the future of Saudi Arabia’s healthcare landscape?
At MISA, we call ourselves the gateway to the country across 15 sectors. Within healthcare, we provide the support needed in terms of legal set-up with all the general licence requirements, in addition to the licences required from a clinical standpoint by the Ministry of Health. We also support new entrants around market penetration or with go-to-market strategies. If they meet our priorities, we work hand in hand with them to enable them to help them deploy their solutions, provide incentives where needed, and cross-match them with the different stakeholders.
What will you be discussing at the Global Health Exhibition this year?
I will discuss the ‘Role of the Ministry of Investment’ and shed light on development opportunities for investors in radiology and medical imaging in the Kingdom. I am also a judge for the Innov8 Start-up competition and a part of the scientific committee for the conferences. MISA will have a booth side by side with the Ministry of Health and Health Sector Transformation Program. We will sign several MoUs during the exhibition between global and domestic investors with considerable investment.
Register NOW to engage in thought-provoking sessions and be a step ahead of industry trends. Doors to the second day of the Global Health Exhibition open at 9am.
Don’t forget to pick up your copy of Omnia Health from the entrances of Halls 1 and 4. As the official Editorial partner of Global Health Exhibition, the latest edition features insights from affluential leaders alongside key catalysts driving healthcare markets in the region. In case you missed it, you can access the digital version HERE.
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