Thinking Forward: Telehealth, A.I., & Blockchain: The Future of the Global Healthcare Industry – with Omar Zaki, Healthcare Futurist and former Executive Director of the U.A.E.-based IMC Medical Centers

Since the onset of COVID-19, KARV Communications has remained in close contact with members of our global network, including industry leaders who are thinking beyond the immediate impact of the pandemic and focusing on strategies for emerging and thriving in a new business landscape. Leadership in the era of COVID-19 requires evolved approaches to implementing adaptive business models for 2020 and beyond.

We spoke with Omar Zaki, Healthcare Futurist and former Executive Director of the UAE-based IMC Medical Centers, about how telehealth, artificial intelligence, and blockchain are profoundly transforming the global healthcare industry.

How would you describe the current state of the healthcare industry?

There is an exciting paradigm shift happening right now in healthcare. There is also a lot of pain in the industry due to the pandemic’s effect on non-essential or elective medical services and the resulting ongoing decline in patient revenue. Too many small and large facilities have already or will be shutting their doors permanently. This affects droves of healthcare workers and all the corresponding stakeholders of the system. It isn’t pretty. Nonetheless, as a healthcare futurist, in a Healthcare Forward discussion, I also see much-needed change coming faster than ever and offering the industry a true opportunity to reinvent itself.

My bird’s-eye view:

Healthcare Consumerism: The consumer (the patient) is more of a focus in the healthcare industry than ever; in fact, the empowered patient is now a driving force of change in healthcare delivery. No longer just nice-to-have, personalization of care is essential in both virtual and in-person patient-provider interactions.

Digital Transformation: The pandemic has pushed the adoption of new technologies and digital transformation, with regulatory, insurance, payment, and other stakeholders supporting this shift in parallel. Capital is moving into the industry at its fastest pace and largest volume ever, accelerating innovations and the utilization of hybrid care models.

System Recalibration: The pandemic has highlighted vast inefficiencies in supply chains and emergency preparedness, while also uncovering more of the healthcare inequities across race and financial status. Additionally, although there is more willingness from industry and government to share data (especially during a crisis), privacy and security remain major hurdles to larger scale data sharing and management. 

Looking around the corner, what changes should we expect to see in the healthcare industry in the near future? What are some key developments or innovations you’re anticipating?

In the near term, this period of uncertainty over how COVID-19 may continue to disrupt our world will continue. Without a vaccination, the variety of pandemic-related challenges impacting the industry are forcing organizations to undertake tremendous new risk-mitigation measures, business plan reprioritization, and workload redistribution. Operational, financial, and technological changes across the industry will be forced, accelerated, or made permanent. But major systematic change will still take time due to the U.S. healthcare system’s vast complexities, created over decades through band-aid after band-aid. Regulation and policy are probably the biggest things to keep an eye on in the coming months.

The healthcare innovations I’m most excited about are:

  • Increased interoperability between the myriad of independent medical information systems, devices, and organizations, in tandem with the consolidation of healthcare tech stacks, EMR and Telemedicine platforms driving more efficient large-scale adoption, and data sharing.
  • Continued deployment of new digital tools and solutions for connecting patients with their providers virtually and in real-time, creating significant reduction in many risk factors that lead to unnecessary illness, mortality, or cost-burden to the system.
  • Increased utilization of Artificial Intelligence to support (not replace) clinical diagnostics and decision making, extend high-quality care to those less fortunate who are not near the specialists required, and balance out service capacity based on global supply and demand.
  • Blockchain, or more specifically Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT). The number of applications are too many to cover here, but the golden egg for me is patient privacy and data ownership. The capability exists today to own and access any piece of data related to our physiology and health, share it securely with those who are authorized and can benefit from it (Federated Learning), and also benefit commercially from it by making it available anonymously to third parties for R&D and other purposes, while maintaining ownership and control. Oh, and the cherry on top, ensuring that our personal data will never be manipulated, intentionally or unintentionally, with or without our knowledge. I could go on and on about all the other benefits DLT brings to healthcare.

What will your industry look like a year from now? Five years from now?

One year from now: Not too different from today. On a hockey stick, this would be the relatively flat “blade year.” There will definitely be forward progress in the areas I mentioned above and some big announcements that will attract media attention. But with upcoming elections, potential policy and economic shifts, plus the COVID-19 wildcard still in play, most industry players will avoid significant changes or disruptions.

Five years from now: Definitely different. Either we are in the inflection point or accelerating out of the curve into the upside of the hockey stick. There is a consensus amongst healthcare leaders that the industry will evolve in significant ways over the next 3-5 years. If the current pace and level of structural change continue, the possibilities are endless. Real-time monitoring, access, and guidance will be effortless, making prevention the main convention rather than treatment. Technology will gradually eliminate many of the traditional and unnecessary burdens on the system. Resources will be allocated and utilized more efficiently and evenly, making healthcare infinitely more comfortable and widely available to all its clients.

In terms of communication, what messages do people need to hear to retain confidence in the future of the healthcare industry?  

Healthcare consumers need to know they have more control and rights than ever as participants in the industry. Messaging needs to center around making consumers comfortable with the options that are available to them and how to take ownership of their health and wellness, not just their health plan. Many of the new innovations in healthcare are complex and technically challenging, so education and engagement are key in communication efforts by healthcare organizations and especially unbiased third parties.

People never thought to share personal photos, opinions, or financial transactions with the world before 10 years ago, yet now we do it with fervor. Imagine healthcare being that easy.