Health matters

Demand for healthcare in the region is rising but none other than in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, says the CEO of GE Healthcare
Health is wealth CEO John Dineen sees “tremendous growth” potential for the medical arm of GE in the Gulf and MENA region
By Karen Leigh
Sat 09 Apr 2011 11:34 AM

John Dineen likes gadgets - health gadgets, whether they’re small portable heart scanners that can be used in a Third World village or gigantic state of the art x-ray machines that would look more at home on a space ship than a doctor’s office.

He’s going to use those gadgets as he aims to restructure the current healthcare infrastructure in the Middle East, while introducing a largely untapped market to the high tech products now available on the medical market.

Here they both are, side by side, the small and the space-age. Dineen’s sitting high above it all; overlooking what’s arguably the most innovative set of medical equipment to come to the Middle East since the medical technology boom began in the 2000s.

As the CEO of GE’s healthcare division, Dineen is in charge of a $17bn segment of the General Electric Company and the GE business headquartered outside of the United States.

He sees “tremendous growth” potential for the medical arm of the company in the Gulf and MENA, generally thought of as a backwater when it comes to global healthcare improvements, lagging behind regional neighbours such as India.

The firm’s assault on the region is coming at the right time, over the next twenty years treatment demand in the GCC is expected to increase 240 percent while the number of hospital beds will need to more than double to 162,000 as the population ages, according to the consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.

One of GE Healthcare’s main areas of focus will be expanding its business in Saudi Arabia. Dineen says the market there is expanding rapidly - in 2010, GE saw double-digit orders and sales of its equipment from the kingdom.

In re-imagining the medical scene in MENA, Dineen has two main focuses - improvements to the established urban health infrastructure (namely improving the technology of major hospitals and research facilities) and the development of rural healthcare.

It’s a good time, he says, to invest in healthcare. “Almost every government in the region is investing in social structure - we’re seeing significant investments across the board in the healthcare system,” he says.

Part of GE’s investment is aimed towards adapting its equipment systems to each country’s individual needs and bringing a personal touch to the industry in MENA. “We want to create diversity - every market here is a little bit different,” he says. “We need to become a local company with a touch in each place. We want to have a lasting relationship with medical professionals on the ground,” he adds.

He’s also aiming to use the Middle East as a market for improved technology in various fields, including cardiology and radiology. He’ll do this by streamlining equipment - instead of needing a different piece of machinery to perform different tests doctors will have access to one-stop shops, so to speak, which will perform a myriad of exams. It all fits into GE’s strategy to bring simplicity and accessibility to the medical profession in an area of the world that is known for both its poor health (with at least one-fifth of all adults in the UAE and Gulf suffering from diabetes) and impoverished pockets such as Yemen.

“We’re positioning ourselves to really improve healthcare systems,” Dineen explains, adding that the overall aim was to improve “diagnostic and IT capability. We want to be able to help them with their total infrastructure needs - customers have asked us to help them be better providers. We want to really help people operate their hospitals,” he continues.

“We want to be a better industrial partner with our customers. Hospitals are factories, at the end of the day. We want to provide patients with better long term service.”

Arguably Dineen’s biggest achievement in Saudi Arabia has been the implementation of Innova technology, purchased by the Dr Sulaiman Al Habib Medical Centre in Riyadh, the largest private health system in the country, with more than ten operating hospitals. The Innova 3100, a space-age tube machine, allows for angiography, cardiology, neurology and interventional procedures and was purchased by the Al Habib.

Dineen’s approach to helping Saudi Arabia and other countries to modernise is two-pronged. There is the technology aspect. There is also the need for better organisation, administration and structure. “We also have a solutions business,” he says, “working with the Saudi hospitals to help them become more industrial with their practices.”

The GE team has partnered with health ministries in various Middle East countries, as well as hospital staff, and brought in consultants to help them streamline what can often be highly inefficient, bureaucratic practices. In that, it’s the same concept of the high-tech, one size fits all medical gadgetry.

It’s also important in the wake of global recession, when countries here are looking to build up their healthcare programmes as illnesses like diabetes hit all time highs - but don’t necessarily have extra money to spend on the programmes. “Most healthcare systems can’t afford to throw money at problems anymore,” he says. To that end, “most local investments [from GE] are in people and in the service infrastructure. We have to use that money to be efficient and make sure that it is spent efficiently.”

And over the past few years, GE and other companies working to improve medical infrastructure have spent “tens of billions of dollars” on streamlining technology in the Middle East and other developing regions of the world. He says the quality of local clinics comes first. Without the clinics and proper staff, the technology is pointless.

Another major challenge is, of course, money. Like with any new venture, restructuring the healthcare infrastructure in the Middle East is going to cost. “You’re looking at a big bill - there’s a financial challenge in delivering healthcare,” he says. “We’ve got a laser focus on creating clinical quality in the Middle East,” he adds. “We’re not just pushing tech for the sake of tech. We’re expanding the portfolio for the right tools that will complete the right jobs for individual sectors.”

A broader portfolio of tech products, Dineen adds “is a solution to the problem” of substandard health services. Saudi Arabia has been a test ground, and it has inspired Dineen to want to push further into the region. “We’ve been very successful in Saudi,” he says. But going forward, it’s not enough for salesmen to be the only ones meeting local professionals face to face. “We’ve got to have teams on the ground for local capabilities,” he explains.

He’s also having an indirect effect on the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. The King Abdullah Medical City in Mecca, built to serve the millions of Haj and Umrah pilgrims who visit the holy city, purchased an Innova 2121, dedicated for pediatric cardiology and electrophysiology. It was Dineen and GE Healthcare’s first biplane installation in the kingdom, and a huge step for a country which sees thousands of medical tourists flee each year for Europe, Asia and the Americas.

In addition to the kingdom, Dineen is particularly excited to work in Iraq and Pakistan. “The potential for Iraq conerage is huge, and Pakistan could be huge,” he says.

He says that as populations grow older  the need for improved health care would grow more crucial. “Around the world populations are aging. They require more healthcare.”

A major area of focus for Dineen will also be advance diagnostics. He says that a great deal of the reported health problems plaguing the region can be staved off or their treatment costs minimised by recognising the problems before they worsen.

But the Gulf and MENA largely don’t have those tools yet and that’s where GE could come in. “We are investing very heavily in advanced diagnostics,” he says. “It’s all designed to catch disease earlier.” In the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Saudi, that can be applied to one of the easiest diseases to catch - diabetes, often caused by obesity - which is also one of the most costly if left untreated, leading to organ failure, cancer and other life threatening health woes. “Therapies today are very expensive, so we’re focusing on investing in improvements to diagnostic capability.”

Those tools will run the gamut depending on which country they’re being sold to. In rural Yemen and Oman, Dineen aims to sell smaller, portable, less expensive devices that can be used as heart monitors and to do other simple medical tests. In a more developed medical area like Riyadh, the bulkier, pricier, cutting-edge technology would come into play. “They need completely different tools,” he says of the region’s countries. “Even in Saudi Arabia, they may want and need the most advanced system in the world. In other countries where there’s zero diagnostic capability, we’re looking at a hand held product that can change the game.”

He says GE was “very much bifurcating” in the region. “We used to only invest in the highest end tech. That was the old days. Now we’re also going to deploy the simplest, cost effective products that can work in Saudi and in Yemen.” And here, below us at a medical exhibtion, “they are in the same booth.”

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