PREPAREDNESS

Oman 2020 | HEALTH | INTERVIEW

With only 12,800 cases of COVID-19 as of June 2020, Oman managed to flatten its COVID-19 curve through pre-planning, cross-sector collaboration, and free testing for everyone.

Dr. Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Saidi
BIOGRAPHY

Dr. Ahmed Mohammed Al-Saidi is Oman's Minister of Health. He has a BSc from Park College, Kansas City and an MBChB from the University of Glasgow. He also studied general management at Harvard Business School. His career has included senior medical, administrative, and academic positions in both Oman and the UK, including undersecretary for health affairs and senior consultant rheumatologist at the Ministry of Health; deputy director general (medical), head of medical division, and senior consultant physician/rheumatologist at the Royal Hospital in Oman; and consultant rheumatologist and senior lecturer at the Bristol Royal Infirmary in the UK.

What have been the drivers behind the containment of COVID-19 cases?
Oman is one of the few countries that have managed to keep its curve at a somewhat steady level so far, and this is due to a number of reasons, an important one is pre-planning and early preparedness. Strategies to contain the pandemic were developed based on previous experiences of Oman facing other disasters. Particularly for COVID-19, pandemic procedures were prepared since early January 2020, even before the international declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic. The second factor has been the efficiency of our surveillance system for non-communicable diseases in spotting suspected cases and responding appropriately. Third, the partnership, engagement, and empowerment of all the sectors in mitigating the spread of the virus has been critical. The media has played a great role in engaging the community, as there were clear messages on prevention strategies broadcasted in different languages and using different platforms. This definitely helped raise awareness and increase the commitment of people to adhering to physical distancing regulations and stay-at-home orders. Finally, what has also helped is that the government has stayed rational and balanced in the decision-making process and taken into consideration local measures, factors, and situations. This led to a wider acceptance by the community and adherence to the regulations and saved the government from rushing into decisions, which may have been overturned given the rapid changes the course of the pandemic has taken.

Can you walk us through some of the main statistics related to the COVID-19 pandemic and their significance?
As of June 1, 2020, Oman had 12,800 cases of COVID-19, out of which only 6-8% needed admission to medical facilities versus 20% worldwide and only 1% of those admitted needed intensive care versus 5% globally. We have so far registered 57 deaths, which implies a death rate of 0.5%, whereas in countries like Italy, it is 12%. The population in Oman is considered a “young population," and this helps combat the disease as risk factors tend to be less. In addition to that, Oman has a solid health infrastructure with a widespread network of healthcare facilities. In order to ensure equity of healthcare access and services to all people, screening is provided free of charge to everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, legal conditions, immigration status, or any other barrier. Screening services followed by protective measures were provided at all primary healthcare facilities, outreach camps were set, and people were encouraged to come forward.

Where do you see the major opportunities for the private sector to engage and turn challenges into opportunities?
Partnerships between the private and government sectors is very important and have been instrumental in enhancing Oman's abilities to cope with the current pandemic. In Oman, we have enough ICU beds but not enough staff. This is where the private sector helped the ministry in receiving patients, and the ministry provided technical support and equipment as needed. The COVID-19 crisis has pushed us into realizing the importance of producing medical equipment locally. In the early stages, there was a desperate need for ventilators and PPE. However, now we are producing most of the equipment in Oman. The public and private sectors have been operating relentlessly to provide services to the community, at times free of cost. As such, one of the ministry's main objectives is to reconnect with the private sector, increase the shares of the private sector in the Omani market through PPPs, and regroup all public-sector facilities under one umbrella to reduce costs.

How do you expect technological advances to impact the industry?
The pandemic gave us the opportunity to set up virtual clinics together with the Royal Hospital, implement-tracking systems for patients and increase the feasibility of imaging. Robotic surgery is another area where technology can make a real difference in the outcome. The long-term savings brought by AI could be huge, especially in the diagnosis segment. Nonetheless, young doctors should always bear in mind that human touch will always be crucial.