UP AT THE LAB

Saudi Arabia 2014 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Ali Al Watban, Head of Diagnostics in Saudi Arabia at Roche Diagnostics, on the company's regional sstrategy, the healthcare boom in the GCC, and the role of women at the company.

Now that the company's headquarters have been re-located to the UAE, how will operations be affected in Saudi Arabia?

It was my superior's idea to relocate to Jebel Ali two years ago. He called us for a meeting in Mainz-Germany to explain the idea, and I agreed 100%. I believed that being closer to the customer would solve many problems. Being in the Middle East and learning the culture and the environment would generally benefit the company's operations here. In addition, the process time would be reduced and better results could be attained faster than any competitor. We initiated that, and we continue to work on it to be ahead of any competition.

How would you characterize the regulatory environment for diagnostics in Saudi Arabia?

In Saudi Arabia, and especially in the medical sector, business has been growing very rapidly. The Royal Crown has set rules to empower a Saudi Arabian version of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Saudi Food & Drug Authority (SFDA) is the same. It is very strict and sharp, reporting results directly to the Crown. While I believe that it was a good idea, the first implementation lacked some awareness of the new rules and regulations.

“In Saudi Arabia, and especially in the medical sector, business has been growing very rapidly."

Is Roche going to be involved in the King Abdullah Medical Center project?

In my position as Head of Diagnostics, I was involved in every Ministry of Health laboratory. The project involved 2,000 polyclinics, from which we received a significant share. We are supplying more than half of the Ministry of Health sites in Saudi Arabia. With our unique instruments and services, we have secured complete customer satisfaction, with many people praising our work. However, the competition is there and it is very strong. Unfortunately, not every company shares the same commitment to better quality for patients in the Kingdom. We continue to try our best to be the partner of choice for in-vitro diagnostics, and to deliver the basis for better medical decisions at the government, Ministry of Health, and private level.

In which lines of business do you see the most growth?

In all sectors, our figures are growing rapidly. This indicates that our healthcare sector is greatly improving in the country. There is a trend toward the automation of laboratories, which again is a positive development aimed at improving the quality and consistency of healthcare.

How is Roche positioned to capitalize on the healthcare boom in the GCC?

Roche is uniquely positioned as being not only the world market leader in in-vitro diagnostics, but as well offers the broadest portfolio of solutions. Roche is among the top-10 companies in the world when it comes to spending in innovation, and everything we do is driven by our aim to deliver what patients need. In the Middle East in particular, we are the only global diagnostics company that has established its own affiliate in the region. We take all decisions locally, close to our customers in the GCC. We have our scientifically trained marketing personnel available to support our team anytime; we maintain a stock of reagents and instruments for the entire region in the UAE, so that we can ensure product quality and availability. Our Customer Support Center takes calls from our end-customers to help them with expert knowledge to directly answer their technical and application requests. All together, we maintain the largest customer support organization in the Middle East in our industry.

What role do women play in Roche in Saudi Arabia?

Roche has a new office and the company has developed an entire department for female Saudi employees. We currently have a private office for eight women who are not salespeople or field service engineers, but medical technologists that are knowledgeable about Roche products. They can work in areas such as technical support, workflow solutions, and the training center. Now, female Roche employees can take part in our organization, and the Roche target is to achieve a 10% total head count, as part of our Saudization efforts. Roche premises in Saudi Arabia have fulfilled the requirement to provide all female employees with the privacy of their own entrance and washroom. Before the end of 2013, Roche hired the first woman to join the Roche team in Saudi Arabia, and we aim to hire more women for our team. Currently, we are interviewing to see who has the right degree in medical devices or applied sciences to meet the requirements for working with us.

Are people traveling from other regions into Saudi Arabia for medical tourism?

Medical tourism here is limited. However, in Saudi Arabia there is an offer mandated by the Royal King to separate conjoined twins free of charge, which is carried out free of charge for countries all across the globe. Any conjoined twins can be separated in Saudi Arabia. The process generally costs millions of dollars, and is extremely complicated. In fact, very poor people who cannot afford treatment for complicated diseases are also often personally invited by the royal family to be treated in Saudi Arabia.

Looking ahead toward the coming two years, what are your targets, and how do you plan to achieve them?

We want to become the trusted partner of choice for in-vitro diagnostics throughout the region. We have achieved this with many important healthcare providers, such as the King Faisal Hospital, military hospitals, the Ministry of Health, Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi, and the Sulaiman Al Habib Medical Group. But there are a lot of new projects coming up in Saudi Arabia, and we want to ensure that more facilities use us as the provider of high-quality diagnostics to ensure better medical decisions for patients in the Kingdom.

What advice would you offer to future generation of medical specialists?

If you know what you want to do, there is no advice I can give other than follow that dream. For me, I had no intention of being involved in business or in the private sector. However, the job I am doing now is more related to the technology, and I gave a recent presentation to high-level doctors on molecular trends. To talk to someone in my position 20 years ago, I would simply tell them to know what field they want to join and decide what they want to be, not the other way around.

© The Business Year - February 2014