What changes has the ministry implemented to adapt to the pandemic?
We had to adapt to numerous changes this year, such as having to respond quicker and a stronger shift toward the use of technologies in carrying out routine practices. Oman has a strong disease surveillance system for early detection before the pandemic thanks to its experiences with MERS and then with H1N1. COVID-19 forced us to further enhance this system, which culminated in the development of the Tarassud platform, a platform for registering cases, following up with their results, and tracking down individuals suspected to be positive. Learning from previous experiences and that of other countries, we also started preemptive action. This started with the establishment by Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of the Supreme Committee, which brought together the various sectors involved in responding to a possible pandemic. Cross-sectoral collaboration ensured strong governance in decision making processes. Additionally, we secured all points of entry as well, as a measure to enhance the surveillance system. In line with preemptively securing medical necessities, we also started working on expanding our ICU beds capacity. We also worked on securing sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment for our staff and ventilators. As a result, we thankfully never had a significant shortage, and we were successful despite the many challenges in international trade. We also started working more closely with our partners, mainly the private sector and civil society. Volunteers helped health institutions to deliver medications to the homes of high-risk groups, such as the elderly or immunocompromised. We would not have been able to handle the surge in cases if it were not for our strong network of healthcare institutions. In Oman, we have decided from the beginning to provide free COVID-19 care to everyone, including expatriates—regardless of their status.
Where do you see the greatest opportunities for the private sector to invest in healthcare?
The healthcare system in Oman is strong across the six pillars of governance, and so any new investment will be embraced by this system. The private sector can capitalize on areas of healthcare that still need development in Oman. This includes specialized laboratory testing, which would alleviate the pressure from public laboratories, ad rehabilitation centers. Adding to that, the public health center can only expand so much. In partnership with the private sector, construction is currently ongoing at three hospitals at the moment: one with 700 beds in Salalah; one with 220 beds in Sohar; and one in Khasab. And we will still need to build five more hospitals after that, and we are looking for local and international partners to build them. The private sector can increase the national healthcare capacity and quality of specialization, which will reduce waiting times for patients and eventually reverse the flow of expenses on abroad treatments to local providers. On top of all, the private sector can establish centers of excellence in various fields, including wellness and metal health centers, to attract patients from across the region. The important thing is to show long-term commitment and not to focus on short-term profit.
Looking beyond the pandemic, what are your objectives for this year?
The main objective is to maintain the achievements of the health sector in Oman. We have learned and are still learning may valuable lessons, and the MOH team has prepared a plan with what has been done and what can be done better in the future. We also want to maintain ongoing projects to expand health services throughout the country, such as the hospitals in Salalah, Sohar, and Khasab. And we will need to continue working towards turning the plans of building five more hospitals after that into a reality with local or international partners. Apart from that, it is of course a priority for us to continue striving toward more achievements for Oman in health.