One of the oldest and most crucial industries, healthcare has so far been conservative in embracing the transformative potential of innovative technologies, as other industries reap the benefits of digitalisation, AI and big data. However, the global challenges facing this industry are only escalating. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and chronic lung disease are growing in prevalence around the world, including in the Middle East.

Healthcare has been high on Abu Dhabi’s agenda for a number of years. In 2018, the Department of Health (DOH) developed its healthcare masterplan, with the mission to improve the quality of healthcare services in the emirate and fulfil rising healthcare demands. Healthcare technology (healthtech) has been embraced and championed as part of this mission and is a priority of Abu Dhabi’s economic vision. In 2019, the DOH launched its Artificial Intelligence Lab to develop healthcare solutions through innovative technologies and developed Malaffi, the region’s first health information exchange (HIE) platform.

As the Covid-19 pandemic created a world in which healthcare is more essential than ever but face-to-face contact is limited, the industry reached a critical juncture. The need for transformation is being recognised, and future-focused tech leaders like Abu Dhabi are driving a timely gearshift. The industry has reached the tipping point at which healthtech will take its place centre stage.

“We’re seeing a rate of innovation like never before [in Abu Dhabi],” says Fodhil Benturquia, CEO and founder of UAE-based digital healthcare platform Okadoc. “It’s taken something like Covid-19 to really shake the industry into embracing new technology.”

Technological solutions have stepped in to make sure we can still see our doctors and maintain our health. In doing so, more profound change has been brought about. “Not only is it revolutionising healthcare processes,” explains Benturquia, “but also transforming relationships between doctors and patients, where both parties are equally empowered to receive the best possible service experience.”

Okadoc chose Abu Dhabi as a site of its innovation, leveraging the advantages of a future-focused business environment and investment potential to embrace the trends which are steering the healthcare industry in the direction of technological transformation.

Healthy growth in Abu Dhabi for healthtech startups

The global healthcare sector is the site of huge growth, and in the UAE, healthtech startups are supported by a forward-thinking government with clear long-term policies for technological innovation.

Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital, provides startups and innovators with a world-leading environment. It is home to best-in-class healthcare facilities and trailblazing labs, having attracted top international hospitals from around the world, including Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Kings College London. Along with world-leading resources, it offers some of the fastest review timelines in the industry, just eight to 15 days.

This dynamic ecosystem has been able to rapidly respond to the demands of the pandemic. Abu Dhabi-based AI and cloud computing company G42 recently partnered with Sinopharm CNBG to establish manufacturing capabilities for the Covid-19 vaccine in Abu Dhabi’s free zone KIZAD, aiming to produce at least 200m doses per year. The company is also working with biotech company Seegene to bring the Seegene Mobile Station to the region, offering innovative mobile diagnostic, testing and laboratory services to help combat the spread of the virus.

There is enormous investment potential in the emirate. The Abu Dhabi Department of Health (DOH) is a dynamic and forward-thinking organisation which is active in its efforts to encourage innovation through events and incentives as part of its Abu Dhabi Healthcare Innovation Program, in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development (ADDED) and the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM).

This year, the DOH’s “Clinical Research in Abu Dhabi Healthcare and Biopharmaceutical Hub” workshop brought together 29 healthcare experts and scientists to discuss clinical research and investment trends.

Healthtech is a priority of Abu Dhabi’s economic vision and the ADGM Plug and Play programme, which aims to attract up to 36 global healthcare startups to Abu Dhabi by 2022, in partnership with ADIO. In 2019, the programme launched MENA’s first health start-up accelerator, focusing on attracting new technologies and investing in local startups to support Abu Dhabi’s healthcare ecosystem.

“The Abu Dhabi start-up ecosystem is thriving and is a highly supportive global business hub for startups like Okadoc,” says Benturquia. “There’s a real hunger for knowledge sharing and innovation that you can’t find in many other parts of the world.”

Okadoc’s first major milestone towards becoming a regional leader was the close of its $10 million Series A funding round, the largest series A in healthtech in the region. As part of the funding round, investors including Abu Dhabi’s Venture Fund, part of the Ghadan 21 accelerator programme and Ithmar Capital Partners contributed to Okadoc’s telemedicine launch and enabled the company to expand into new markets, including Saudi Arabia.

“We’ve also been lucky to be part of Hub71,” Benturquia adds, “which made us part of an interconnected network of transformative tech companies and startups.” Healthtech is one of the priority sectors of the innovation incubator, which supports businesses by waiving office, living and healthcare costs for employees for a number of years, as well as helping startups seek strategic partnerships.

Introducing Okadoc: A regional leader

Online healthcare platforms are set to play a huge role in the future of healthcare, and Okadoc is the Middle East’s first and only instant doctor platform that is directly integrated into healthcare providers’ health information systems (HIS). Okadoc is free for patients to use to book and reschedule appointments and has engaged most of the healthcare institutions in the UAE, including Aster Hospitals and the Emirates Healthcare Group, since its foundation in 2018.

“Our mission is to address important pain points for both patients and healthcare providers,” explains Benturquia. “The first was addressing the patient no-show rate. The second was easing the process and reducing the time to book a doctor.” By integrating into HIS, Okadoc allows patients to view their doctor’s availability in real time, instantly book appointments, receive reminders, reschedule, cancel or even request notifications of earlier availability.

More recently, Okadoc has moved into the telemedicine space. Prior to the pandemic, telemedicine was a relatively small sector of the healthcare market. Now, it is expected to be a leading industry trend in 2021 and beyond, with telemedicine having increased up to 2,000% in one month during the pandemic, according to the Abu Dhabi Telemedicine Centre. It is clear that the Abu Dhabi market is now in a prime position to embrace this trend, which is making healthcare far more accessible.

“Our platform enables healthcare providers to offer safe and secure virtual consultations to their patients from the comfort and safety of their own homes,” says Benturquia. “The telemedicine platform also enables document-sharing and online chat to seamlessly connect patients and doctors.”

Healthcare providers can also offer the Okadoc experience over their own platforms, through Okadoc’s white label solution.

Reason to innovate

These current and emerging trends are giving the healthcare industry the boost it needs to stride forward into the future, and there is still huge room to grow.

“Launching telemedicine was always a goal of ours,” says Benturquia. “Recently, we’ve also introduced the ability to book Covid-19 vaccinations and tests directly through the platform.”

In the coming years, we can expect to see the healthcare industry transform to embrace the technological future, and Abu Dhabi is home to all the necessary tools and the spirit of innovation that businesses and entrepreneurs need in order to shape it.

To find out more about healthtech investment opportunities in Abu Dhabi, download the Abu Dhabi Prospectus above.