It was just over two weeks ago that the first World Expo to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region came to an end.
Following a year’s delay due to the pandemic, Expo 2020 Dubai ran from October 2021 to March 2022, logging an outstanding 24 million visits in the process. Not bad for an event that many initially didn’t know what it represented (between 26 September and 2 October 2021, the question “What is Expo 2020 Dubai?” became one of the top Expo-related searches on Google).
Now, it’s a different picture.
At Expo’s closing, the secretary general of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) said that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has provided an effective case study for future expos.
“It’s clear that we have set a new bar here – it’s something I believe [Expo 2025 Osaka] will look to aspire to,” stated Dimitri Kerkentzes.
Expo’s positive impact on healthcare – through forums, conversation, and the showcasing of technology – is one that experts hope will continue for years to come.
“World Expos exist to imagine the future of industry and envision innovative solutions to some of society’s most pressing challenges,” explains Remy Levastre, advisory director for healthcare at WSP. “This is particularly evident in relation to the healthcare sector, with Expo 2020 serving as an incubator for innovation and a platform for thought in the global health arena.”
Reenita Das, partner and senior vice president of healthcare and life sciences at Frost & Sullivan, adds: “The impact is not only positive, but far reaching and transformational. [Expo 2020] helped unify the world under a single country umbrella.”
FIRST EXPO IN MEASA
As the first Expo in the region, Expo 2020 Dubai has no doubt created a lasting legacy – not only through the exchange of ideas – but also through the demonstration of its healthcare system, says Das.
“From an external brand point of view, it has elevated the UAE to a world stage in terms of healthcare innovation, technology and sustainability,” she says. “The way the UAE handled a major global summit amidst a global pandemic in terms of safety, policy, regulations, and vaccine deployment – where over 22 million visitors attended from nearly 200 countries – is enough [of a] testimonial to showcase the strength and resilience of its healthcare system.”
She continues: “From its immaculate execution of Expo 2020, [the UAE has demonstrated] its supremacy to becoming a world leader in medical tourism. The growth opportunities in medical tourism are abound, and the UAE should utilise Expo 2020 to take this to the next level.”
GATHERING GOVERNMENT & MORE
The six-month event united experts and decision makers from around the world at Expo-wide or country-specific forums to discuss the future of healthcare.
One key gathering was its World Majlis series, of which one theme was health and wellness.
“With increasingly effective treatments for communicable diseases – coupled with advances in big data and technology, and the emerging field of genomics and precision medicine – healthcare will shift from being a practice for treating disease and acute episodes in hospitals, to prevention and distributed long-term management of chronic issues,” Expo 2020 outlined in a post-event statement.
There were also a number of events by government, private companies, and individuals.
Last month, for instance, the Emirates Oncology Society (EOS) launched the first Emirati publication on cancer in the Arab world. A total of 50 researchers from around the region contributed to the title, led by Professor Humaid Alshamsi, president of EOS, and professor of oncology at the University of Sharjah.
“Expo 2020 certainly had a very positive impact on healthcare in the form of connecting with experts from around the globe, sharing [the] latest innovation, and research and ideas,” he tells us, adding that areas he engaged with at the world fair included “CAR-T cell therapy for advanced haematological malignancies, the latest advances in bone marrow transplantation, new therapies for breast cancer, and AI in the diagnosis of cancer.”
In February, UAE government departments convened for UAE Innovates, a forum dedicated to highlighting projects that can improve quality of life.
One of the projects was the Dubai Health Authority’s Mindspire, which demonstrated how AI and voice recognition could be used to diagnose depression. The Authority reportedly used its opportunity at Expo to gather data by asking visitors to “donate” their voices for further research and development of the project.
“There was a good range of topics covered, from policy, regulation and technology – voices from startups with innovative technology, to large firms changing the healthcare space,” says Das. “I think the question of access and policy lagging behind technology remains a big challenge across the world, and the UAE is no different in that respect.
“This agenda needs to be pushed especially related to virtualisation and patient care at home.”
THE FUTURE OF PHARMA
There’s little doubt that the pharmaceutical industry is working towards shaping the future of healthcare, by engaging with local governments and other stakeholders on technology and advancement.
Major businesses – such as Roche, Sanofi, Merck Serono – participated throughout the six months of Expo with exhibits, talks and forums.
Switzerland’s Novartis for instance, held an event that included exploring data science and AI.
Company president and Gulf country head, Mohamed Ezz Eldin elaborates: “Novartis had the pleasure of presenting our own transformative innovations; it was an honour to showcase how we are using innovative science and digital technologies to create transformative treatments in areas of great medical need.”
“One of my highlights was the insightful presentation our team conducted on cell and gene therapy – a truly remarkable approach for treating rare genetic diseases.”
He continues: “Advanced technologies like data science and AI offer so [many opportunities] for healthcare professionals and companies to improve the outcomes for patients and transform the practice of medicine.”
THE CONVERSATION AROUND TECHNOLOGY
With Expo 2020 Dubai’s three sub-themes of “sustainability, mobility, and opportunity,” it is hardly surprising that technology was at the core of the healthcare conversations taking place.
And one area technology can play a huge part in, says Levastre, is that of sustainability.
“The call to action for increased sustainability within the healthcare sector is becoming an urgent need,” he says. “In many Western countries, the healthcare sector is estimated to be responsible for up to 5% of their respective national carbon footprint. This indicates that ‘greening’ the healthcare sector requires reinforced commitment and leadership to meet net-zero targets.
“As the region turns its attention towards becoming a global medtech innovation hub, objectives should remain ambitious; our hopes in decarbonising the sector largely rest on our collective ability to achieve technology conversion and integration within hospitals of the future.”
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Looking beyond Expo, experts agree that continued collaboration is key to drive the technological and digital transformation of healthcare. It is important not to neglect or forget the work carried out at the world fair.
Das continues: “The biggest lesson learnt is that anything is possible [and] the world cannot advance without collaboration and partnership. This is more so in healthcare than any other area.”
Ezz Eldin adds: “Expo 2020 provided a glimpse into the amazing possibilities that abound across all industries, including healthcare, and it was a privilege to engage with our visiting guests and our patient community to give back to society through education, knowledge and discussion around how we are meeting significant healthcare needs.
“I am incredibly excited about the prospects for innovation and digital transformation in the local healthcare sector that has been brought to limelight through Expo.”
The future’s looking bright for healthcare in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), states Levastre.
“The focus around transformation in the Middle East has been firmly fixed on building and embracing large-scale projects, and ambitious goals that [placed] them on the map of medtech innovation. The region’s approach to healthcare is also nuanced, as countries within the GCC and MENA have developed different needs for public service [infrastructure] and advanced healthcare systems in alignment with their respective national priorities.”
He continues: “By and large, the Middle East’s healthcare sector is presenting significant opportunity, much of which will be driven further at a global cooperation level by regional events such as COP27 and COP28, [and] megaprojects such as the World Cup in Qatar.”
However, all stakeholders in the healthcare sector need to be able to transform and adapt quickly.
Referencing the UAE, Das stresses: “In order to really leverage Expo 2020, the UAE needs to change its dialogue about healthcare.
“Today, health is not about sick care alone; we have to put that dialogue to bed. Health encompasses four critical elements – physical, social, spiritual, and mental – [and the] UAE is in a very good position to champion this and take on the baton on behalf of the world in bringing more products and solutions to each of these areas.
“This requires changes in policy, regulations, reimbursement of insurance plans, and how health and wellness is treated from home to hospital.”
She concludes: “This could be a very strong differentiating point taking the goodwill earned from Expo 2020 Dubai, and leveraging it to become first in class in healthcare.
“Healthcare is not about technology; it should always be about how technologies enable people to lead better quality of lives.”