Saudi arabia brings world's first virtual hospital to life

June 27, 2023
Digital Health
It's 2030, and I'm logging into a virtual hospital. What does my visit as a patient look like? As you log into SEHA Virtual Hospital (SVH) in the year 2030, your visit as a patient will be quite different from traditional in-person visits. Upon logging in, you'll be greeted by a virtual receptionist or an AI-powered Chabot. They will guide you through the check-in process, confirming your personal details, the reason for the visit, and any symptoms you're experiencing. Further, instead of physically waiting in a room, you'll be directed to a virtual waiting area. This may resemble a virtual lounge or a calming environment where you can interact with other patients through avatars or engage in entertainment options while waiting for your turn. When it's time for your appointment, you'll be connected to a healthcare provider through a secure video call. The doctor or nurse may appear as a realistic virtual avatar or as their actual self through high-definition video. You can discuss your symptoms, medical history, and any concerns you have, just like in a face-to-face visit. Depending on your symptoms, the doctor may request certain diagnostic tests or ask you to perform specific assessments at home. For instance, you might use wearable devices or smart medical tools to measure vital signs, collect samples, or conduct basic tests. The data will be transmitted securely to the healthcare provider for analysis. In some cases, the healthcare provider may guide you through a virtual examination. They may instruct you on how to examine certain areas of your body using cameras or specialised devices connected to your computer or smartphone. This way, they can assess your condition remotely. If your condition requires medication, the doctor can electronically send your prescription to a nearby pharmacy or arrange home delivery. They can also guide you through self-care instructions and exercises or provide digital therapy resources. After the consultation, you may schedule virtual follow-up visits to track your progress or discuss any concerns. These appointments can be conducted similarly to the initial visit, helping you receive ongoing care and support from the comfort of your home. Your virtual hospital visits will seamlessly integrate with your electronic health records, ensuring that all the relevant information and treatment details are documented accurately. This allows for continuity of care and easy access to your medical history for future consultations. That sounds revolutionary in comparison to how classical hospital work. So why was the concept of SEHA Virtual Hospital developed? SVH was created after the COVID-19 pandemic – it was born out of the necessity to increase access to services in peripheral areas. It aligns with the need for healthcare systems to adapt and address challenges posed by the pandemic. In this case, the development of the virtual hospital can be attributed to several reasons, such as limited access to specialised medical services, leading to disparities in healthcare. The SEHA Virtual Hospital could have been developed to bridge this gap by providing remote consultations, diagnostic services, specialty consultations, and critical care to nearly 166 regional facilities. Patients in remote areas can access healthcare professionals and services that were previously unavailable to them. The COVID-19 pandemic emphasised the importance of reducing in-person interactions to curb the spread of the virus. Therefore, during the pandemic, the national telemedicine program was accelerated to enable access to physicians and prescribed medications. Later, transformation plans in healthcare rapidly excelled towards Saudi Vision 2030. Therefore, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) leveraged Telemedicine's significant expansion during the pandemic and developed a new innovative model of care – the SEHA Virtual Hospital, which can offer a safe alternative to traditional in-person visits, minimizing the risk of transmission for patients, healthcare providers, and the broader community. It allows individuals to seek medical attention without leaving their homes, reducing exposure to infectious diseases. It provides tele-specialised consultations, remote critical care, and multidisciplinary tele-committees. In peripheral areas, patients often face challenges in accessing timely medical care due to limited healthcare infrastructure or long travel distances. The virtual hospital can address this issue by offering prompt virtual consultations, enabling patients to receive timely medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment plans without the hurdle of long journeys or waiting times. So the vision also includes the integration of existing healthcare infrastructure, right? With its connectivity to 166 hospitals, coverage of 65 specialities, and the ability to provide emergency and critical consultations, it demonstrates a comprehensive approach to virtual healthcare delivery. The specialised clinics for various diseases and conditions, such as heart, kidney, blood diseases, diabetes, psychiatry, genetic diseases, and medical rehabilitation, highlight the commitment to providing specialised care remotely. The integration of AI-powered medical imaging algorithms for analysing tests and X-rays performed at local hospitals is a valuable feature. It enables efficient and timely diagnosis by sharing results instantly with remote specialists. This not only reduces the need for patients to travel but also harnesses the expertise of specialists in complex cases referred from around the country. What benefits do you expect for doctors, patients, and the health system? The SEHA Virtual Hospital offers several benefits for doctors, patients, and the health system as a whole. Virtual consultations and remote monitoring enable doctors to optimise their time and manage a larger patient load. They can conduct virtual visits more efficiently, reducing waiting times and increasing productivity. For example, at SVH, telecardiology services contributed to a 40% decrease in the length of stay for patients, a 25% decrease in readmission, 26% savings in readmission cost, and a 25% decrease in the number of patient referrals. Further, tele-stroke services increased access by 30% to stroke specialists. Additionally, a reduction of Door-to-Needle time to reach 33 minutes. Another example in teleradiology emphasises how the model of SEHA virtual care helped reduce the waiting time of reporting time from 12 days to 5 hours for OBD (Opioid-induced bowel dysfunction) patients, a 21% increase in scans volume in low-utilized modalities. Doctors can connect with specialists from various fields, facilitating collaboration and access to specialised knowledge. This can aid in making accurate diagnoses, developing comprehensive treatment plans, and improving patient outcomes. Nearly 15% of tumor cases are managed through tele-tumor committees because SEHA Virtual Hospitals facilitate better coordination and communication between healthcare providers so doctors can access patient records, share information seamlessly, and ensure continuity of care even across different healthcare facilities. What technologies will be deployed in it to achieve the full capacity of the virtual hospital? The specific technologies deployed in the SEHA Virtual Hospital vary based on the healthcare system's design and available resources. The virtual hospital leverages telemedicine platforms that provide secure video conferencing capabilities for virtual consultations between doctors and patients. These platforms also include features such as chat functionality, file sharing, and integration with electronic health records. AI-Powered Medical Imaging Algorithms: Medical imaging technologies, such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, are integrated with AI-powered algorithms for automated image analysis. These algorithms assist in the detection of abnormalities, provide preliminary diagnoses, and help in treatment planning at SVH. It's worth noting that technological advancements are continually evolving, and innovations emerge in the field of virtual healthcare, such as IoT, AI, VR, IoMT (Internet of Medical Things), and AR. The SEHA Virtual Hospital will likely leverage a combination of these technologies to deliver efficient, accessible, and high-quality healthcare services to patients. Will the rapid development of AI and large language models—like ChatGPT—also shape the hospitals of the future? Certainly, implementing AI and large language models in hospitals, such as SEHA Hospital, for immediate consultation through chat platforms is an excellent proof of concept. By leveraging these technologies, hospitals can provide efficient and accessible healthcare services to patients. It allows for quick and convenient consultations, reduces waiting times, and potentially improves patient outcomes. As the proof of concept progresses, it is important to consider ethical considerations, ensure data privacy and security, and collaborate closely with healthcare professionals and policymakers to maximise the benefits and address any challenges that may arise. What fascinates you most about new technologies that you co-founded the first virtual hospital? What fascinated me the most was the ability of technology means and telehealth delivery during natural disasters and crises. Telemedicine has been effectively used to mitigate the impact of natural disasters. SVH contributed to earthquake relief efforts by providing care to survivors in the affected areas in Turkey and Syria; it demonstrates the adaptability and responsiveness of the virtual hospital model in times of crisis. SVH has supported earthquake relief efforts. During this difficult time and when the decision was made, a war room was activated. Multiple teams were there at SHV, including medical, technical, and logistics – they managed to activate remote services in different specialities and helped many of those who survived this conflict. When will SVH be fully operational? SEHA Virtual Hospital is evolving and expanding its network by connecting more hospitals to its platform. By including additional hospitals, the virtual hospital can extend its reach, enhance the accessibility of healthcare services, and cater to a larger population. This expansion allows a broader range of healthcare providers and specialists to collaborate and care for patients in many more regions. It also facilitates the sharing of resources, expertise, and medical records across multiple healthcare facilities, ensuring seamless continuity of care. The growing network of connected hospitals signifies the commitment to leveraging technology to improve healthcare delivery and enhance patient experiences. Yet, it is operationalized to serve 450,000 patients, and as it evolves to include more services, it will consider several key steps in order to mature operations.
The hospital has already reached the operative capacity of serving 450,000 patients
To expand the SVH network, several key steps and considerations need to be taken into account. Firstly, it is essential to establish the necessary technological infrastructure, including secure communication channels, telemedicine platforms, and data storage systems. This ensures a robust foundation for virtual care delivery. Secondly, connectivity and integration with existing hospital systems and electronic health records are crucial. Seamless exchange of patient information and treatment plans between healthcare facilities enables comprehensive and coordinated care across the network. Recruitment and training of healthcare professionals play a vital role. It is necessary to attract skilled individuals who can adapt to telemedicine technologies and virtual care practices. Providing them with additional training and support ensures they can effectively deliver care through the virtual hospital platform. Standardised protocols, workflows, and guidelines are essential for consistent, high-quality care delivery. Establishing clear protocols for virtual consultations, diagnostics, emergency response, data security, and patient privacy helps ensure safe and effective virtual care experiences. Patient onboarding and education are also critical components. Informing and educating patients about the virtual hospital's services, appointment scheduling processes, telemedicine platforms, and the use of remote monitoring devices empower them to actively participate in their own care and make the most of virtual healthcare services. Technical support and maintenance systems need to be in place to address any technical issues that may arise, ensure data security, and provide ongoing training and support for healthcare professionals using the virtual hospital platform. Lastly, continuous improvement and evaluation are necessary to enhance performance and patient satisfaction. Regular assessments, gathering feedback from healthcare providers and patients, and making necessary improvements based on the insights gained to ensure a continually evolving and effective virtual care delivery model. Considering these steps and factors, the SVH can successfully expand its network, improve accessibility to healthcare services, and enhance patient experiences while delivering high-quality virtual care. What factors need to be taken into account to bridge the gap between regulations and telehealth practice while ensuring a balance between innovation and patient safety? To bridge the gap between regulations and telehealth practice, a balance must be struck to avoid over-regulation or under-regulation. Regulations should support innovation, cross-border telehealth, safety, and efficiency. Collaboration between policymakers, healthcare professionals, and technology experts is crucial. Regular evaluation and updates of regulations are needed to address challenges, maintain a supportive environment for innovation, and prioritise patient safety. This collaborative effort has resulted in the development of a telehealth guide using the SEHA Virtual Hospital as a use case, addressing the regulatory needs across different domains. It is a great honour to be appointed Chairperson of the National Committee for Telehealth Guidelines in Saudi Arabia. It is an incredible honour to lead this esteemed committee and contribute to advancing telehealth practices in our country. Over the past several months, our dedicated team has been diligently working to establish telehealth standards and guidelines that align with the unique needs and context of Saudi Arabia. Today, I am delighted to announce that we have successfully published the "Telehealth Standards and Guide for Virtual Practice"! This comprehensive guide is a result of extensive research, collaboration, and the combined expertise of our committee members. We recognise the immense potential of telehealth in transforming healthcare delivery, enhancing accessibility, and improving patient outcomes. With these guidelines, we aim to provide healthcare professionals, organisations, and policymakers with a robust framework to ensure the safe, efficient, and effective implementation of telehealth services. Leveraging telehealth guidelines and fostering global collaboration with organisations like World Health Organization and other international regulatory authorities can contribute to the advancement of cross-border telehealth practices, ultimately leading to improved healthcare outcomes and increased accessibility to healthcare services for people around the world. What is your vision for healthcare in the future? The Saudi Arabia Vision 2030 outlines a comprehensive plan for the future of healthcare in the country. The vision strongly emphasises digital transformation and the integration of technology, including telehealth, to enhance the quality and accessibility of healthcare services. The SVH aims to utilise technology to offer remote healthcare services, improve patient experiences, and ensure convenient access to healthcare both within the nation and across borders. By connecting a broader network of experts, facilities, partners, and regulators, the objective is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare delivery while simultaneously reducing costs and enhancing health outcomes. The underlying principle is that healthcare is fundamentally about people, and the virtual hospital seeks to leverage technology to provide seamless and patient-centred care. Click here to read more about SEHA Virtual Hospital. (PDF)   Join us at the ICT&health World Conference in the Netherlands from 14-16 in 2024 to learn more about this, the regulations, finance, the possibilities, experience and all relevant innovations and technologies that transform healthcare at a global scale. And discover what the Netherlands, other countries and their global wide partners can offer the world of healthcare when they collaborate.