CIO Ahmad Yahya on how COVID-19 has changed IT priorities at American Hospital Dubai

Posted on 27/04/2020

Ahmad Yahya, CIO of the American Hospital Dubai, and his team have been supporting their senior management directives to align and support Dubai Health Authority efforts in proving patients with COVID-19 containment measures with high quality medical care. His team rapidly switched from the ongoing IT initiatives to addressing the pressing requirements of the situation which included transforming a hotel into a fully operational field hospital, launching a new telehealth and home services, and enabling remote working for administrative employees. Here, he talks about his top priorities amid COVID-19, the future of healthcare and shares some advice for other hospital CIOs.

How has your role as CIO of American Hospital Dubai changed in recent weeks in response to COVID-19?

The American Hospital Dubai is part of the Mohammad Obaid Al-Mulla Group. The Group has businesses in areas like hospitality and real estate, as such we have close ties with the community and have corporate social responsibility to the nation. We wanted to support the UAE and the Dubai Health Authority during this period. Part of our social responsibility, the group decided to allocate hotel buildings to provide containment and treatment measures to the country to treat COVID-19 positive tested patients.

One of these group hotel facilities was transformed by the American Hospital Team a field hospital with 390 beds for patients. We have provided all required medical equipment including imaging, lab, ventilators, and vital machines within a 24-Hour period.

From an IT perspective, it is been a challenging period and very busy. As the CIO, I had to rapidly switch the focus of the IT team from its ongoing activities to the new priorities and norm of doing business.

With the directive to have the field hospital ready in a 24-Hour timeframe, we had to focus on extending our main hospital’s IT System’s and IT services to the new building, this included making special workflows including COVID-19 clinical assessment protocols for our clinical teams to identify these patients, extend imaging capabilities and connecting modalities to our PACs system back in the main hospital for image reading and diagnosis among other activities.

Working with the telco provider and the hotel operator was key in getting the infrastructure ready for us to extend our services to the facility in a timely manner. Security, reliability, and performance was at the fore front of our planning and it had to be done in a very short time. We had to secure the hotel’s network, extend our main campus network to the facility, and insure proper remote access is provided to clinical and admin staff.

Another immediate focus during this period, was to provide practical and functional solutions for hospital’s administrative employees to work from home. Fortunately, part of our ongoing digital transformation journey, we had initiatives that focused on enhancing our collaboration capabilities, we had to expedite the delivery of these vital components to help our user adapt. We had to address the needs of our special users, such as our call centre, clinical users, and employees of finance functions, to ensure that they can continue to operate in an effective and secure way remotely.

With the country enforcing lock down measures, we had to enhance all online channels to our organization and patients which meant we had to support new interactions and business models for our services. As such we aggressively expediated the delivery of our telehealth service platform. The service ensured patients can still access medical experts and treatments despite the COVID-19 outbreak which restricted travel. Again, the team worked really hard to pull the project forward, and to make sure it met all the regulatory requirements from both a healthcare and telco perspective.

On another front, we had to deal with supply-chain interruptions which proved to be a significant challenge as peaks in short-term demand for devices and IT hardware confront a breakdown of international logistics. We had to source hardware from different suppliers, purchasing channels, and reallocate hardware and equipment from our satellite clinics.

Finally, myself and the rest of the hospital’s senior management team did not lose focus on looking after our employees. In a bid to help our employees overcome the fear and anxiety amid COVID-19, we had to show empathy and understand their concerns and family constraints and show them the measures undertaken by hospital management to reduce this risk and accommodate their personal and family needs.

What have the security challenges been?

From a Cybersecurity perspective, social engineering and insufficient security measures for remote work were the two main cybersecurity risks that we focused on. We were concerned with compromised credentials, data, and fraud. We used security tools, processes, and awareness to staff to reduce risk.

Another concern was securing the field hospital (Hotel) IT Services. We had to extend our IT services to a facility where we did not know the infrastructure nor what security measures are in place. Keeping in mind this is a hotel, IT security measures in the guest rooms would be minimal; as such lots of work that had to be done to minimise exposure by reconfiguring the network, implement firewalls, and secure the computing environment to be able to extend hospital’s main campus network to the field hospital. This required agile and collaborative efforts from both IT teams (Hospital and Hotel) to achieve this in a very short time.

Do you think healthcare will change in the long run?

In healthcare in general, I think this is a real eye-opener to a lot of developed nations where there is been underfunding for their health services. Earlier investments could have averted a lot of the problems this outbreak has caused. The fallout it still to be seen. Hopefully, it will lead to an increase in investment in the world’s healthcare systems both human capital, resources, and technology.

For IT, it is always a battle to justify IT investments and IT has been considered a backburner service by a lot of institutions. The current situation should be an eye opener to executive management, highlighting the need to invest more in technology. The fact that hospital’s like American Hospital Dubai has been able to adapt right away should really validate some of the business cases for the investments put forward to them.

What advice can you share with other healthcare CIOs dealing with similar situations?

Agility is key. You have to think out of the box. You can’t always think in a structured manner. You’ve got to take risks to achieve the goal here, even though it may not be perfect. You need to have the mindset to be agile, to adapt to the situation.

You must really support the business. At times like this, you can’t say no. You’ve got to figure something out. Even if it’s just percent of what they asked for, it’s better than saying no. That’s worked out well for us.

As CIOs look forward, we must enhance online channels of our organizations and support new interactions and services for staff and patients. We will have to re-look at prioritizing our portfolio of projects and make sure they are aligned and are focused on what matters.

Finally, CIOs must be able to manage multiple planning strategies in parallel to handle the current crisis, prepare for the downturn, and ultimately position the business for success when the recovery comes.

Hear more from Ahmad Yahya in our Agents of Change series here.

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