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 Arabia participates in Beijing International Book Fair

Saudi Arabia participates in Beijing International Book Fair
Updated 19 June 2024
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Saudi Arabia participates in Beijing International Book Fair

Saudi Arabia participates in Beijing International Book Fair
  • Saudi Heritage Commission aims to familiarize visitors with Kingdom’s diverse culture
  • Kingdom is the guest of honor at BIBF

BEIJING: The Saudi Heritage Commission is participating in the Beijing International Book Fair in China with the aim of providing visitors with a platform to expand their knowledge about national heritage.
The commission also aims to familiarize visitors with the Kingdom’s diverse culture, historical landmarks and historical significance through its participation in BIBF, which began on Wednesday and continues until June 23, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
Saudi Arabia is guest of honor at the exhibition, providing visitors with a distinct heritage experience through its special pavilion.
The Saudi platform includes a display of archaeological reproductions that reflect the Kingdom’s cultural and historical depth over thousands of years.
It also showcases several Saudi handicrafts, such as Arabic calligraphy, prayer bead making and Sadu weaving. Saudi artisans will provide live demonstrations of their handicrafts. The exhibition will feature display screens presenting the Kingdom’s rich and diverse heritage.
The commission’s involvement in BIBF is part of the Kingdom’s participation in various international forums.
Saudi Arabia continues its efforts to raise cultural awareness and preserve national heritage, and this participation also aims to highlight the Kingdom’s heritage to a global audience.


Madinah Governor inspects health services for pilgrims around Prophet’s Mosque

Madinah Governor inspects health services for pilgrims around Prophet’s Mosque
Updated 19 June 2024
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Madinah Governor inspects health services for pilgrims around Prophet’s Mosque

Madinah Governor inspects health services for pilgrims around Prophet’s Mosque
  • Prince Salman was briefed on the preparations made to cater to meet pilgrims’ needs in the post-Hajj season

MADINA: Madinah Governor Prince Salman bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz inspected the health services available to pilgrims in the central area near the Prophet’s Mosque, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Wednesday.
During his inspection tour, the governor was briefed on the preparations made by the health cluster to cater to the needs of pilgrims in the post-Hajj season, in line with the directives of the Kingdom’s leadership to provide optimal health care and treatment to visitors to the Prophet’s Mosque.
Furthermore, Prince Salman urged medical staff and health care workers at Madinah’s health care centers and hospitals to cater to the health needs of the pilgrims and strive to achieve the highest standards of public health, thereby fulfilling the objectives of the Health Transformation Program outlined in Saudi Vision 2030.


Pilgrims hosted by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Guests Program leave for Madinah

Pilgrims hosted by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Guests Program for Hajj, Umrah and Visit leave for Madinah. (SPA)
Pilgrims hosted by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Guests Program for Hajj, Umrah and Visit leave for Madinah. (SPA)
Updated 19 June 2024
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Pilgrims hosted by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Guests Program leave for Madinah

Pilgrims hosted by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Guests Program for Hajj, Umrah and Visit leave for Madinah. (SPA)
  • They will visit the Prophet’s Mosque in the holy city after completing Hajj on Tuesday

RIYADH: Pilgrims hosted by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Guests Program for Hajj, Umrah and Visit have left for Madinah, Saudi Press Agency reported on Wednesday.

They will visit the Prophet’s Mosque in the holy city after completing Hajj on Tuesday.

The pilgrims expressed their thanks to the Saudi leadership for the generous hospitality and services provided to them during their Hajj journey, SPA reported. 

They praised the efforts made by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah, and Guidance to provide the pilgrims with the best services and care so that they could perform their rituals comfortably. 


Fluent Makkah locals break down language barriers during Hajj

During the Hajj season, locals in Makkah are often praised for their fluency in several languages. (Supplied)
During the Hajj season, locals in Makkah are often praised for their fluency in several languages. (Supplied)
Updated 19 June 2024
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Fluent Makkah locals break down language barriers during Hajj

During the Hajj season, locals in Makkah are often praised for their fluency in several languages. (Supplied)
  • Most Makkah residents are able to communicate in several languages after years of direct contact with pilgrims

MAKKAH: During the Hajj season, locals in the holy city are often praised for their fluency in several languages, stemming from their interactions with people from around the world.

Their engagement in Hajj-related activities, both commercial and voluntary, across various sectors, enables them to secure seasonal jobs and gain valuable experience in volunteering. Most importantly, it provides them with the honor of serving pilgrims, meeting their needs, and ensuring their comfort.

Anas Al-Harithi, a Makkah resident, engages in seasonal work every year during the Hajj season with agencies that offer temporary jobs.

He describes it as a great experience that has allowed him to learn Indonesian and interact with Indonesian worshippers — the largest group of pilgrims arriving in Makkah each year.

Al-Harithi said that linguistic barriers have significantly diminished, as many people in Makkah have long been fluent in several languages.

Through his years of working during Hajj, Al-Harithi has built extensive knowledge related to the pilgrimage. His ability to share languages and actively participate makes the journey easier and smoother for pilgrims.

Most Makkah residents gain this skill not through formal education but through direct contact with pilgrims, enabling them to meet the worshippers’ needs effectively, he said.

Rania Chaudhry, a pilgrims’ guide, said that Hajj is a great opportunity for the people of Makkah to work, serve, and enjoy the honor of this noble profession.

Her ability to communicate in Urdu was developed through years of experience welcoming pilgrims, meeting their needs, and ensuring their journey is as smooth and comfortable as possible.

Chaudhry said that many of the male and female guides originally come from the same countries as the pilgrims. Therefore, learning these languages is not difficult for them.

“This advantage allows these families the honor of serving the pilgrims, hosting them, ensuring their comfort, and providing the best possible services to help them perform their rituals during the Hajj season,” she said.

Chaudhry added that guides welcome pilgrims from the moment they arrive in Makkah and accompany them throughout the Hajj journey, helping to overcome any linguistic barriers.

The relationship between guides and pilgrims forms a strong bond, not driven by economic interest but by human, spiritual, and religious ties, she said.

“It is an obligation before God, as well as to officials and society, to care for those described as guests of God who have come to answer His call. Therefore, everyone strives to understand their needs and communicate in their language if they are not fluent in Arabic. This commitment reflects the true essence of faith that the guides live by, witnessing its blessings and maximizing its rewards.”

Awad Al-Maliki, a professor specializing in linguistics at the Islamic University of Madinah, said that pilgrims coming to Makkah from all over the world have a strong desire to get to know this society, experience its culture and social life, harmonize with Saudi traditions, and engage in knowledge exchange and constructive cultural partnerships.

Pilgrims see Saudi Arabia not only as the heart of the Islamic world but also as a distinct and open cultural hub and a cultural incubator that unites the entire Islamic world, he said.

Al-Maliki said that pilgrims feel a strong cultural connection to Makkah, and many are not fluent in Arabic.

Consequently, residents often serve as their cultural and tourist guides, offering tours of heritage and cultural sites in Makkah and other Saudi cities in several languages, including English, French, Urdu, Malay, and Hausa.

Saudis are passionate about linguistic communication with all groups to enhance the pilgrims’ experience. This cultural diversity propels the city, enriching it culturally, Al-Maliki said.


Saudi deputy environment minister says desertification among ‘most pressing environmental challenges of our time’

Saudi deputy environment minister says desertification among ‘most pressing environmental challenges of our time’
Updated 19 June 2024
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Saudi deputy environment minister says desertification among ‘most pressing environmental challenges of our time’

Saudi deputy environment minister says desertification among ‘most pressing environmental challenges of our time’
  • Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of driving global efforts to combat land degradation and drought
  • The 30th Desertification and Drought Day was hosted by Germany and concluded this week

RIYADH: Desertification and drought are among the most pressing environmental challenges faced by the world, Saudi Deputy Minister of Environment, Water and Agriculture Osama Faqeeha has said.

In a statement marking the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the minister said land degradation affected up to 40 percent of the world’s land area, resulting in the annual loss of 100 million hectares of healthy land, Saudi Press Agency reported.

Emphasizing the Kingdom’s commitment to sustainable land management, Faqeeha said: “Desertification, land degradation and drought are among the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. This year’s 30th anniversary of the UNCCD coincides with COP16, which is expected to be a pivotal moment for land restoration and sustainable management. Together, we can turn the tide and restore our land. Our future depends on our ability to manage our land sustainably.”

He added that land degradation meant the world lost an area of healthy land equivalent to four football fields every second.

“Healthy land is essential for our future. Let’s unite for sustainable land management,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of driving global efforts to combat land degradation and drought. Programs such as the Saudi Green Initiative and various land restoration projects were highlighted as models for sustainable development.

The minister said the initiatives not only contributed to environmental sustainability, but also aimed to create economic opportunities and improve the quality of life for communities.

The 30th Desertification and Drought Day was hosted by Germany and concluded this week.

UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw said: “This year, we focus on sharing the wisdom of our ancestors with future generations. More than a billion young people under the age of 25 in developing countries depend on land and natural resources. They are key to transforming their communities and driving innovation in sustainable land management”.

Key highlights of the event included a presentation of the new cohort of UNCCD Land Heroes and the unveiling of the UNCCD Youth Engagement Strategy and the Land Youth Negotiators Program.

These initiatives empower young people to transform land management practices and engage in policy-making processes, especially ahead of the upcoming UNCCD COP16 negotiations which will take place in Riyadh from Dec. 2 to 13.