How a Saudi healthcare startup is using AI to transform the diagnosis of chronic diseases

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Updated 15 June 2024
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How a Saudi healthcare startup is using AI to transform the diagnosis of chronic diseases

How a Saudi healthcare startup is using AI to transform the diagnosis of chronic diseases
  • The work of SDM highlights the impact AI can have on the accessibility and increased accuracy of diagnostics 
  • The firm has already served more than 30,000 patients over the last two years at clinics across Saudi Arabia 

RIYADH: Healthcare startup SDM is using artificial intelligence to make healthcare efficient, accessible and potentially life-saving by detecting the stages of chronic diseases such as diabetes through retinal imaging analysis of the eye.

“When you hear the phrase ‘your eye is a window to your body,’ it’s actually the retina that is the window to any systemic diseases,” Dr. Selwa Al-Hazzaa, CEO and founder of SDM, told Arab News.

Since launching in 2018, SDM has worked on filling the gaps in the health sector as a developer of digital technology solutions to promote well-being and accessibility in remote communities across the Kingdom and beyond.




Dr. Selwa Al-Hazzaa, CEO and founder of SDM. (Supplied)

Al-Hazzaa, along with her co-founder and managing director, Naif Al-Obaidallah, have had a longstanding passion for making healthcare accessible and low-cost, with the belief that “everyone should have access to healthcare.”

Al-Obaidallah told Arab News: “Everyone should have a right to see a doctor or get treated.”

A trailblazer in the field of AI medicine, SDM combines AI technology with Al-Hazzaa’s 40 years of experience, partnering with nonprofits to carry out a comprehensive mass detection of chronic diseases through the retina.

“I had a dream that I wanted patients to be examined and get good quality care without actually coming to Selwa Al-Hazzaa in a specialized hospital,” she said. “I kept asking myself: Why can’t I take my experience, put it in a package, and give it to the community?

“By the time many patients come to me, it’s already too late and they’re blind. There had to be a way that I could reach the community. And this was when SDM was born.”

 

 

The result was an accessible and automated healthcare service that does not require physicians to be on site, thereby reaching tens of thousands of people across the Kingdom.

The World Health Organization estimates there are 7 million diabetics in Saudi Arabia. Within the region, eye disease is the main cause of blindness and 10-12 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia with diabetic eye disease go blind if the condition is not treated.

Only an estimated 24 percent of patients have been screened for diabetic eye disease in Saudi Arabia, while 76 percent remain unexamined.

The work SDM is doing highlights the impact AI can have on healthcare and the mass outreach of health diagnostics at reduced cost and increased accuracy. SDM has already served more than 30,000 patients in more than 13 centers around the Kingdom over the last two years.

“Our focuses are specifically on rural areas, places that don’t have access to highly specialized doctors,” said Al-Obaidallah. “In a given day, sometimes we’ve seen over 150 patients. And that’s all using AI and deep learning. It’s a very trusted way of diagnosing.”




Unlike traditional healthcare methods, SDM has developed technology to make detection automated, instant and seamless with results reaching the patient in a matter of minutes, clearing obstacles to treatment. (Supplied)

SDM has benefited from the support of “success partners” at NEOM, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Telecom, Al-Faisal University and business incubator “The Garage.”

In order to grasp the revolutionary impact of what SDM is doing, it is necessary to understand how disease detection is traditionally conducted.

At the Kingdom’s diabetic centers, patients are typically seen by pathologists, endocrinologists, cardiologists and podiatrists. However, patients do not usually see ophthalmologists, who are technically surgeons and found in hospitals.

As a result, eye disease screening is often overlooked, potentially leading to complications down the line.

“The patient traditionally would only be sent to take the photo of the retina if they complained. But the symptoms only come in diabetes in the late stages,” said Al-Hazzaa.

 

 

“They would save the photos until the ophthalmologist came to visit, which would be maybe once a month or twice a month, depending on the collaboration with the ophthalmology clinics.”

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Unlike traditional healthcare methods, SDM has developed technology to make detection automated, instant and seamless with results reaching the patient in a matter of minutes, clearing obstacles to treatment.

When a patient comes into an SDM clinic, a trained technician photographs the back of their eye using a specialized instrument called a fundus camera. The image is then sent via a secure cloud for AI diagnostics.

“Within minutes, the report comes out either in English, which is then integrated for the doctor, and in Arabic, where the patient is actually given the PDF report in his or her hand,” said Al-Hazzaa.

“It is totally run by technicians, photographers, nurses, even primary care physicians — all these healthcare personnel, who have no experience whatsoever with eye diseases.”

Al-Hazzaa underlined the ease this technology provides for patients, healthcare providers who are taking the photos and the endocrinologists who see the patients following the examination.




The technology outperforms even the most experienced physicians in detecting problems, according to the SDM. (Supplied)

In terms of accuracy, Al-Hazzaa said the technology outperforms even the most experienced physicians in detecting problems.

“I can tell you the algorithmic solution is now much more sensitive than me,” she said. “The best I could do was 93 percent. The AI solution has actually reached over 95 percent.

“The unique thing is, not only are you using automation, which is convenient for the patient, convenient for the healthcare provider, but you’re also introducing automation at a sensitivity that is much greater than your board-certified retinologist, not just ophthalmologist.”

Like workers across many sectors, the uptake of AI tools among physicians has been slow to catch on, as many fear that mass adoption could ultimately cost jobs.

“They thought: ‘Here’s a machine that’s much more accurate than us, that’s faster than us, and it’s going to take our place.’ They were very reluctant,” said Al-Hazzaa.

“After one year of being in the diabetic center, the ophthalmologist actually came back to me and said: ‘Dr. Selwa, thank you. You improved our surgical skills because you have taken all the routine repetitive exams that we are no longer interested in’.”

Diabetic eye disease is not the only condition SDM is able to detect through the AI analysis of retinal imaging.

“With the picture of the retina, which is the back of the eye, you can detect at least 20 diseases,” said Al-Obaidallah.




Naif Al-Obaidallah, co-founder and managing director of SDM. (Supplied)

“We’re working on a lot of other diseases, whether it is glaucoma, hypertension, Alzheimer’s, which can be diagnosed and detected with a picture of your eye. It’s mind-boggling to see how the eyes can basically tell you everything about your body. And it’s done in a very basic way. There is no surgery needed.”

As part of its mission to make healthcare more accessible, SDM is working with a mobile diagnostics center in Madinah to reach patients in rural areas.

After some initial delay in securing regulatory approval, SDM’s innovative technology has since rapidly advanced.

“Artificial intelligence as a whole, maybe in some industries, it’s there and it’s in use,” said Al-Obaidallah. “But in healthcare, it’s still fairly new. So, when we work on something, we’re basically paving the way.

“We worked with the Council of Health Insurance on coding, the use of artificial intelligence in healthcare, specifically, in our exam, in our product.

“We were basically the first company to work with the CHI on the new Saudi billing system, to introduce artificial intelligence as a billing code for hospitals and insurance companies to use.”

However, all of SDM’s services are provided free of charge in partnership with nonprofits.

“Everything is free. No one pays anything,” said Al-Obaidallah. “Our goal is for patients to have the right to diagnosis of chronic diseases.”




As part of its mission to make healthcare more accessible, SDM is working with a mobile diagnostics center in Madinah to reach patients in rural areas. (Supplied)

Beyond diagnostics, SDM also recently announced new software utilizing generative AI. “It’s basically a large language model, an LLM, which is a very hot topic,” said Al-Obaidallah.

“Recently, everyone’s been talking about generative AI. So, we’ve worked on a generative AI model that is more of a chatbot that you ask any question related to diabetes. And it would basically give you an answer.

“We’ve been feeding it with journals, publications, specifically, chosen by experts in the field to make sure that this gives you clear and straight answers.”

Looking five years into the future, Al-Hazzaa hopes to move from predictive AI to generative AI using LLMs.

“I know with confidence that SDM will not only be treating diabetic diseases, but we will be going into other chronic diseases such as predicting hypertension, stroke and Alzheimer’s,” she said.

“We will also be looking into other chronic ophthalmology diseases such as glaucoma, such as age-related macular degeneration.”


 


Saudi border guards foil smuggling attempts near Jazan

Saudi border guards foil smuggling attempts near Jazan
Updated 23 June 2024
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Saudi border guards foil smuggling attempts near Jazan

Saudi border guards foil smuggling attempts near Jazan

RIYADH: Border Guard land patrols have foiled an attempt to smuggle 135 kilograms of qat in Al-Dayer sector of Jazan Region. 
Also in Jazan region, border police thwarted an attempt to illegally transport 160 kilograms of qat in Al-Ardah. 
Legal procedures were followed, and the seized items were handed over to the concerned authority.
Meanwhile, two Pakistani residents attempting to sell 4.7 kilograms of methamphetamine in Jeddah. The individuals were referred to the Public Prosecution for legal action.


KSrelief continues humanitarian activities in Lebanon, Sudan

KSrelief continues humanitarian activities in Lebanon, Sudan
Updated 23 June 2024
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KSrelief continues humanitarian activities in Lebanon, Sudan

KSrelief continues humanitarian activities in Lebanon, Sudan

RIYADH: King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center’s (KSrelief) philanthropist works in Lebanon and Sudan continues with its latest provision of medical support and basic food requirements for needy individuals.

In the Miniyeh region of northern Lebanon, the Souboul Al-Salam Social Association ambulance service being funded by KSRelief completed 56 emergency missions, which involved the transport of patients to and from hospitals as well as the provision of first responder services to individuals involved in traffic incidents.

In Sudan, the Saudi aid agency distributed 620 food packages to displaced families staying at the Shelter Center in Blue Nile State, or about 6,131 individuals receiving the subsistence items under the third phase of the Food Security Support Project for the country.


Saudi woman Sondos Jaan set to climb the highest peak in the Arab world

Saudi woman Sondos Jaan set to climb the highest peak in the Arab world
Updated 22 June 2024
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Saudi woman Sondos Jaan set to climb the highest peak in the Arab world

Saudi woman Sondos Jaan set to climb the highest peak in the Arab world
  • Adventurer tackles Mount Toubkal in Morocco

DHAHRAN: Sondos Jaan embarked on the journey to the highest peak in the Arab world on June 20.

It is the latest episode in Jaan’s love for mountain adventures, but to understand the fascination it is important to take a look back at her childhood.

She told Arab News: “I am from Madinah. I was born in a city where I could see a mountain from my bedroom window, and as I walked the streets I would see mountains.”

A picture of Sondos Jaan aged about 5 on the top of a mountain with her father. (Supplied)

Those peaks were an important part of her early childhood. There are pictures of Jaan aged about 5 on the top of mountains. She said: “I call these pictures ‘Sondos between two mountains,’ the real mountain carved in nature, and my father.”

During family camping trips, she would sneak away the moment her family was not paying attention in order to climb a mountain.

HIGHLIGHTS

• For her latest adventure, Sondos Jaan is climbing Morocco’s Mount Toubkal, which is a height of 4,167 meters.

• The climb has two routes: The first takes three days of climbing, and the second takes two days but is more challenging.

She added: “I would hear my father calling me, telling me to stay put and to wait for him. My dear father would come to me and we would then climb together, step by step, him telling me where to place my feet until we reached the summit, and then we would descend together, just the two of us.”

Sondos Jaan from Madinah hopes that young Saudi girls reading about her adventures will feel encouraged to take up sports and hobbies they are passionate about. (Supplied)

Her father was the first adventurer she knew. He was always prepared, she says, and “his car was always ready for a trip.”

She said: “He would tell me stories when he returned from hunting trips, whether on land or at sea. I would imagine the stories as if he were the hero in one of the animated films I watched. Sometimes he would take me with him, and I felt like I was part of the story.”

Sondos Jaan from Madinah hopes that young Saudi girls reading about her adventures will feel encouraged to take up sports and hobbies they are passionate about. (Supplied)

Her love for adventure was instilled in her by her father from a very early age. And it seems mountain climbing is in her DNA.

Jaan said: “My father is my primary mountain-climbing coach, and I certainly inherited the spirit of adventure and love for travel, experiences, and camping from him.

Sondos Jaan from Madinah hopes that young Saudi girls reading about her adventures will feel encouraged to take up sports and hobbies they are passionate about. (Supplied)

“He taught me swimming, horse riding, hunting, fishing, and the basics of camping.”

For her latest adventure, Jaan and a friend are climbing Morocco’s Mount Toubkal, which is a height of 4,167 meters. The climb has two routes: the first takes three days of climbing, and the second takes two days but is more challenging.

A file photo of Sondos Jaan when she was about five years old. (Supplied)

They started the climb early, continuing for about nine to 11 hours, followed by an overnight stay at an elevation of 3,200 meters above sea level.

She believes that elements of nature are instilled within each of us and it is our duty — and a privilege — to find and channel those elements.

She said that climbing to Everest Base Camp was the hardest trek she has yet attempted. It was a two-week journey and she added that she was not able to sleep, eat well or breathe properly due to oxygen deficiency in the two days leading up to arrival at the base camp. However, those were not the main factors behind it being her most difficult climb.

She said: “The (main) reason was simply managing expectations. I was emotional after walking all that time and reaching what was supposed to be the summit for that trip, only to realize it wasn’t even the summit.

“It was the main camp where climbers camp for two months every year before attempting to reach the Everest summit, allowing their bodies to acclimatize to the oxygen deficiency, training, and waiting for the right time to climb the summit.”

The experience taught her a valuable lesson, and she added: “I remember descending and as soon as we settled in one of the tea houses, I cried.

“They asked me why. I said I wanted pizza, crying real tears. The owners of the house tried hard to make pizza for me. I ate one slice and gave the rest to their dog. I reflected on my feelings and asked myself, ‘Why did I act that way?’ And the simple answer was, we didn’t reach the summit, we just saw it up close.”

She considers the thrill of the journey, and not only the destination, to be one worth embracing. She now believes that the feeling of almost giving up happens during every climb; she sees it as a healthy sign.

She added: “It is a reminder that I am human. It is also a reminder that I am capable of doing things that might seem impossible, not because I have superhuman strength, but because I am a human capable of overcoming challenges. This gives me the motivation to complete the climb.”

She believes her latest adventure also serves a greater purpose. Seeing Saudi women participate in various fields, especially sports, helps encourage her to keep striving for the highest heights.

She hopes that young girls reading about her adventures will feel encouraged to take up sports and hobbies they are passionate about, and that her experiences will help to push them to their limits to break stereotypes and barriers along the way.

She is to continue her climb, whether it be a mountain to conquer, or toward the goals of her gender.

For those starting out, she advised: “(You must) start with small, achievable goals and gradually increase the difficulty level. Ensure you have the right gear and training: it’s important to be physically and mentally prepared.

“Join a community or group of climbers for support and motivation. Most importantly, believe in yourself and enjoy the journey.”

 


Migratory birds bring ecological balance to Saudi Arabia’s Northern Borders region

The Aman Environmental Society has launched awareness campaigns and created water basins to support and sustain migratory birds.
The Aman Environmental Society has launched awareness campaigns and created water basins to support and sustain migratory birds.
Updated 22 June 2024
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Migratory birds bring ecological balance to Saudi Arabia’s Northern Borders region

The Aman Environmental Society has launched awareness campaigns and created water basins to support and sustain migratory birds.
  • Nasser Al-Majlad: “They contribute to plant reproduction and diversity through pollination, while also helping to control pests by consuming insects, reducing the need for harmful pesticides in agriculture”

RIYADH: Every year, nearly 300 bird species use Saudi Arabia’s Northern Borders region as a migration path. The area’s diverse landscapes and balanced ecosystem create a natural sanctuary for these avian visitors.

Nasser Al-Majlad, president of the Aman Environmental Society in the Northern Borders region, highlighted the crucial ecological and cultural role played by migratory birds.

FASTFACT

The migratory birds have a positive impact on soil health and ecosystem balance by aiding in soil aeration and seed dispersal near bodies of water.

“They contribute to plant reproduction and diversity through pollination, while also helping to control pests by consuming insects, reducing the need for harmful pesticides in agriculture,” he said.

According to a report by the Saudi Press Agency, Al-Majlad also emphasized the positive impact birds have on soil health and ecosystem balance by aiding in soil aeration and seed dispersal near bodies of water.

NUMBER

300

Every year, nearly 300 bird species use Saudi Arabia’s Northern Borders region as a migration path, Saudi Press Agency reported.

He also stressed the necessity of protecting migratory birds from poaching and environmental problems. The National Center for Wildlife has enacted strict anti-poaching legislation, he noted.

The Aman Environmental Society has launched awareness campaigns and created water basins to support and sustain migratory birds.

 


Saleh Al-Shaibi, senior caretaker of the Kaaba, dies

Saleh Al-Shaibi, senior caretaker of the Kaaba, dies
Updated 22 June 2024
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Saleh Al-Shaibi, senior caretaker of the Kaaba, dies

Saleh Al-Shaibi, senior caretaker of the Kaaba, dies
  • Funeral prayers held after Fajr on Saturday at the Grand Mosque
  • His responsibilities included opening and closing the Kaaba, cleaning, washing, repairing its Kiswa (covering), and welcoming visitors

MAKKAH: Dr. Saleh bin Zain Al-Abidin Al-Shaibi, the senior caretaker of the Kaaba, died in Makkah on Friday evening. Funeral prayers were held after Fajr on Saturday at the Grand Mosque.
Al-Shaibi, who held a doctorate in Islamic studies, was a university professor and an author of several works on creed and history. He was the 77th key holder of the Kaaba since the conquest of Makkah.
His responsibilities included opening and closing the Kaaba, cleaning, washing, repairing its Kiswa (covering), and welcoming visitors. He took over the guardianship after the death of his uncle, Abdulqader Taha Al-Shaibi, in 2013.
His son, Abdulrahman Saleh Al-Shaibi, told Arab News that saying farewell to his father was one of the hardest and saddest moments of his life. He added that the family accepted Allah’s will for a man who was always close to everyone and dedicated his life to serving the family.
He went on to say that his father had been suffering from illness recently but had remained patient and steadfast. The entire community shared in the family’s grief and expressed their sorrow and pain for the loss of the Al-Shaibi family’s pillar.
Al-Shaibi chaired the Department of Creed at Umm Al-Qura University for over two decades. Known for his scholarly approach and love for knowledge, he explored religious and doctrinal issues deeply. An academic at heart, he left a significant and lasting impact.
King Fahd bin Abdulaziz appointed him to the Saudi Shoura Council, and Al-Shaibi served as the deputy to his uncle in the guardianship of the Kaaba until becoming senior caretaker.
His son Abdulrahman added that he had served as his father’s deputy in the guardianship of the Kaaba for five years, after which his cousin Abdulmalik Al-Shaibi had taken over.
He said that his father had wished him to hold the guardianship and the key to the Kaaba after him. However, if this wish is not honored, the guardianship and the key will be handed over to his uncle Abdulwahab Al-Shaibi.
Nizar Al-Shaibi, the cousin of the deceased, told Arab News that it was a sad day for the family. However, the outpouring of love, solidarity, and support from all segments of society, who had rushed to offer their condolences, had helped to ease the burden of their grief.
They had expressed their gratitude for the life of the deceased, who had dedicated his life to the guardianship of the Kaaba and enhancing its reverence.
The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque mourned the death of Sheikh Dr. Saleh bin Zain Al-Abidin Al-Shaibi.
It said in a statement: “With hearts content with God’s decree, the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque and all its employees extend their deepest condolences to the family of the deceased, Sheikh Dr. Saleh bin Zain Al-Abidin Al-Shaibi, the senior caretaker of the Holy Kaaba.”
Khaled Al-Husseini, a writer and expert on Makkah’s affairs, expressed his deep sorrow over the death.
Al-Husseini described Al-Shaibi as a man of knowledge and learning, who, alongside his honored role in the guardianship of the Kaaba, was a scholar, academic, and lecturer at Umm Al-Qura University. He had generously shared his knowledge with successive generations which had benefited from his expertise over 20 years.