SAUDI LIFE EXPECTANCY: OVER 74.8

Saudi Arabia 2019-2020 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Nahar Mezki Alazemi, Secretary General of the Saudi Health Council, on improving public health, treating chronic diseases, and digitalization.

The Saudi Health Council (SHC) is mandated to coordinate and integrate all stakeholders in the Kingdom to enhance public health and improve healthcare. Could you tell us more about your activities?

SHC is mandated to implement the National Healthcare Strategy that was approved in 2009. One of the most important pillars of this strategy plan is to enhance healthcare in its comprehensive concept through insuring and developing primarily healthcare roles and services. In order to put this into practice, SHC conducted a nationwide public health study to detect the major gaps in the provision of public health services and define the roles and responsibilities of involved health and non-health sectors. We identified five major strategic directions to reinforce, support and enhance, based on evaluations which we have translated in the following policy objectives. First, to support the newly established Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that is responsible for public health protection. Second, to support developing an integrated law for this public health protection. Third, we focus on continuous monitoring of causes and risk factors for priority public health problems and related to that we provide an annual assessment of road accident problems, including an assessment of the risk factors and main causes, and make recommendations to the relevant entities. Furthermore, we work on preparing the National Survey to Measure Public Awareness and Degree of the Participation in Public Health Protection programs, while also organizing periodic public health press conferences. Finally, we created a list of research priorities in the field of public health protection and conducted an assessment of labor market needs.

What is the role of SHC in the large-scale digitalization program in the healthcare sector, that includes the unified patient records and other programs?

The SHC harbors the National Health Information Center (NHIC), which is the body responsible for national scale digitalization initiative within the NTP. One of the most critical and far-reaching initiatives is the unified health record. The NHIC is working closely with all service providers, including the Ministry of Health and the Council of Cooperative Health Insurance (CCHI) to support this project. The other landmark project is the data observatory, which will help the Saudi healthcare system in producing national level KPIs and thus, monitoring the progress and improvements on critical indicators.

The public health objectives of Vision 2030 include two directions: to reduce infectious diseases and educate the population on using primary healthcare, and to address chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart diseases. Could you elaborate on the main strategies in place to achieve these objectives?

In addition to our general mandate of implementing the national public health strategy, we have recently established a health economics unit that is working closely with the World Bank in conducting national economic studies to understand the economic impact of diabetes, cancer and heart diseases and other disease priorities. Such studies will entice the production, revision, and monitoring of national policies address the burden of disease. In addition to health economics SHC has worked on the Health education and early detection national programs which are now implemented by different entities in addition SHC is working on establishing a collaboration center for evidence-based policy.

From a regional perspective, how do Saudi health standards compare with other countries?

Compared to countries in the region, the Kingdom has passed advanced milestones in terms of improving quality and patient safety. On a national level, Saudi Arabia has been able to develop the right governing structures that will set the standards, monitor compliance, and ensure major improvements in patient safety in its healthcare facilities. The Central Board of Accreditation Healthcare Institutions (CBAHI) has evolved significantly over the years. It is now providing accreditation programs that are on par with international ones. Similarly, the Saudi Patient Safety Center, the National Health Observatory, the National Quality Institute and the Saudi Food & Drug Authority do great work in quality control. There is also great momentum on a health sector level, with the launch of a massive scale improvement program, ADAA Health, to improve efficiency, access and quality. The healthcare sector in the Kingdom witnessed huge improvements in health status for the past three decades, accompanied by a significant decrease in the spread of diseases. On average, death rates decreased by a third since the 1980s, while life expectancy in 2016 was 74.8 years, exceeding the regional average by six years and the global average by 3.4 years. It is up from 66 years in the 1980s. The infant and maternal mortality ratios also dropped significantly, while overall immunization for DPT, OPV, BCG, MMR, and PCV across the Kingdom increased from 95% to 98%.

How are you internationalizing and benchmarking these quality standards?

The Kingdom is taking solid steps to enhance the health status of its population, and it is one of the main objectives of the NTP. To operate in line with the transformation quality agenda, the SHC has worked on the National Quality and Patient Safety Development Program. Its main objective is to strengthen the health quality framework and strategy to ensure that national policies, guidelines and protocols around quality are reliably implemented, building on the extensive resources and infrastructure that the government has already put in place. Thereby accelerating Saudi Arabia's efforts to close remaining gaps in health outcomes and ensure care and equitable treatment for the country's diverse population. The national strategy is directly aligned with Vision 2030 to ensure that Saudi Arabia is equipped to manage the increasingly complex needs of a 21st century population.

What are your strategic priorities and ambitions for the year ahead?

We will continuously strive to improve the healthcare delivery system. Secondly, we aim to achieve financial suitability for our healthcare system. That includes exploring certain parts of the healthcare sector to become self-funding or privatizes. Last, we envision improving the overall performance and efficiency of our healthcare system.