Digital medicine connects hospitals in Gulf and Israel
Israel’s Sheba Medical Center shares technology expertise with Bahrain’s oldest hospital, bridging Middle East divides
When Bahrain’s King Hamad American Mission Hospital opens a new $66 million building in January, it will treat patients using advanced medical capabilities that are based on artificial intelligence, virtual reality and digital health care management.
Much of the technology employed at the tiny Gulf kingdom’s oldest hospital will come from a partnership with Israel’s Sheba Medical Center that would have been impossible two years ago, before the two countries established diplomatic ties through the Abraham Accords. Sheba’s doctors, managers and home-grown startup companies will help the private, nonprofit hospital offer breakthrough techniques in surgery and rehabilitation while treating a wider circle of patients through telemedicine.
“Health care unites us across social and political divides,” Dr. George Cheriyan, CEO of the Bahraini hospital known as AMH, said in an interview with The Circuit. “The Abraham Accords have opened the doors to allow people from both nations to mix freely, with health care as the gateway.”
Central to the relationship will be Sheba’s ARC Center for Digital Innovation and Triventures, a $200 million Israeli-American venture capital firm that established a seed fund to nurture med-tech startups within Sheba, Israel’s biggest hospital.
The new 125-bed medical center in Bahrain, a few miles south of the capital city of Manama, is scheduled to open in 2023, 120 years after the hospital was founded by Christian missionaries from the United States.The five-story building will become AMH’s flagship, with four satellite facilities across the island country, which is off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia and connected by a causeway.
“We’re looking to Sheba to add extra competency and skills to what we have already in Bahrain,” said Cheriyan, an Indian neonatologist with an MBA from Harvard. “There will be a free flow of physicians and surgeons back and forth.”
Sheba’s ARC program – which stands for Accelerate, Redesign and Collaborate – has developed partnerships for applying new medical technologies at hospitals in Chicago, Houston and Ottawa. It is also working with Bahrain’s biggest public hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex.
In the United Arab Emirates, Sheba physicians have started offering remote consultations over Zoom to 350 diabetes patients from the Gulf state’s military, police and firefighting services, through an agreement with the Dubai-based Al Tadawi Healthcare Group. Sheba will also help train obstetrics and gynecology personnel at the Medcare Women and Children Hospital, which runs a chain of facilities in Dubai.
AMH has its own relationships with hospitals in other countries, including the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Health care can be used “as a pathway to flourish and succeed in the region,” Yoel Har-Even, director of Sheba Global, the hospital’s international business division, told The Circuit. “There are no secrets when you’re dealing with medicine and health care. This is not about missiles or nuclear. We’re talking about the human body and the diseases mankind is suffering from.”
Sheba, which is consistently rated among the world’s 10 best hospitals in an annual Newsweek survey, has developed relations with the Gulf that go back to 2019. Before the Abraham Accords were signed, Dr. Yitshak Kreiss, the hospital’s director general, traveled to the U.S.-sponsored “Peace to Prosperity” summit in Bahrain. The conference, which focused on economic aid for the Palestinians, as well as prospects for the broader Middle East, put Sheba in contact with hospital administrators in the Gulf, Har-Even said.
Seeds for the current partnerships came from Kreiss’ proposal for a regional initiative that included medical training and education; medical research; medical tourism and technological innovation, he said. It meshed well with ARC, which operates in six main areas: big data and artificial intelligence; precision medicine; telemedicine; virtualization in medicine; new developments in surgery; and rehabilitation.
Sheba’s ARC will serve as “a bridge to foment economic growth and sustainability in order to provide better health care to everyone in the region,” said Dr. Eyal Zimlichman, chief transformation and innovation officer at Sheba and ARC’s founder.
Several of the startups cultivated by Triventures may contribute to Sheba’s work in the Gulf, said Managing Partner Michal Geva, co-founder of the firm. Feelbetter uses an algorithm that combs data to develop personalized treatment plans and identifies patients at risk for a range of diseases. Tunefork uses smartphones to conduct audio tests for hearing loss, sparing the need to visit a clinic. Burnalong is a streaming video channel that runs programs on exercise, wellness, nutrition, diet and medication. It aims to be the “Netflix for health and wellness content,” Geva said.
Sheba and its startups have expertise in several areas that are needed in the Gulf, Joel Indrupati, director of corporate communications at AMH, told The Circuit. Among them are “pain management through virtual reality; creating an enhanced user experience via telemedicine and remote monitoring of vital signs through the Internet of Things; and securing patient privacy with appropriate data security and overall cybersecurity systems,” Indrupati said. “Surgical advances will also be a priority in the near future.”
Among the factors that cemented cooperation between Israel and the Gulf was the COVID-19 pandemic, which showed the danger of cross-border contagion, Har-Even said.
“The next zoonotic disease [an illness originating in animals and jumping to humans] is already on its way,” Har-Even said. “To fight that, no one company can take solid leadership of the anti-pandemic effort. It needs to be multiregional. This is a lesson everyone learned. We need better coordination. If a pandemic starts in one country, it will move fast to the next one.”
The pandemic also prompted physicians and hospital administrators to think more about telemedicine. “In the past, it took us months to convince the government to reimburse us for a virtual encounter with a physician,” Har-Even said. “Then one small bat changed the world.”
Bahrain’s new relationship with Israel reflects its history of openness to the West, according to Cheriyan. “Bahrain is an island with access to underground aquifers providing sweet water. So, historically, seafarers used to stop in Bahrain to pick up water.” The hospital was founded in 1903 by Christian missionaries who came to the region “to search for Abraham’s lost son” – Ishmael, a revered figure in Islam.
AMH’s founders recognized that if they hoped to attract doctors and other medical personnel to Bahrain, they needed to provide them with places of worship, Cheriyan said. “The first non-Islamic place of worship in Bahrain was a Hindu temple. The missionaries then established the first churches,” Cheriyan said. The government also allowed its small Jewish population of 1,500 worshippers to open a synagogue in Manama in the 1930s.
Cheriyan said he sees more similarities than differences between Israel and Bahrain. “When Jerusalem shuts down for Shabbat, it’s comparable to Fridays, which are also a public holiday here in Bahrain.” Markets, landscapes and even smells are similar, he said. On his first visit to Israel, “I didn’t find such a big gap.”
After years in which Bahrain restricted contact with Israel in line with Arab League policy, normalization with the Jewish state through the Abraham Accords remains controversial, Cheriyan said. “Fifty percent welcome it, especially the younger generation, 30 percent are still on the fence and 20 percent will never accept it,” he said.
Still, he predicts a “positive, bright future” for Gulf-Israel cooperation. “It’s not some U.N. accord, signed and forgotten,” he said. “There are real people involved and real lives are being impacted through this relationship. I’m glad I got to play a small part of it.”