(MENAFN - Arab News) Saudi Arabia has launched an innovative five-year collaboration program with the Washington-based Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) to create an integrated tracking system to monitor the health status of Saudi citizens with a mandate to map out future health plans and policy priorities.
"The Kingdom is the first country in the Arab world and the Greater Middle East region to launch an integrated health surveillance system," said Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, minister of health, yesterday.
"This new project is the part of the Saudi government's plan to promote general health and prevention of diseases countrywide," said the minister. Al-Rabeeah was speaking in an exclusive interview after chairing the first session of the international conference on healthy lifestyles and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in the Arab world and the Middle East here yesterday. A panel of five international experts presented their papers during the first session of the conference with the health minister.
Asked about the initiatives taken by the Kingdom to combat NCDs, Al-Rabeeah said that "the MoH was in the process of setting up national committees for different diseases separately. For example, we have a national committee for cancer prevention."
"We have now seven disease-specific committees for campaigning and combating fatal diseases including NCDs," said the minister, adding that these national panels will be entrusted with the task to find out ways and means to combat them.
Spelling out the features of the MoH's integrated tracking system that will help to map out future strategy, Al-Rabeeah said that the project would enable health officials and experts to carry out a comprehensive study to evaluate the burden of the diseases on the nation. He pointed out that the MoH is collaborating with the IHME to develop health indicators and measurements to gauge the intensity of challenges the country is facing.
The project, the health minister said, will also help to devise further strategies to address the challenges posed by the growing prevalence of diseases and in particular NCDs. "To achieve this goal, the MoH has teamed up with the IHME to create a tracking system that would give policymakers both real time snapshots of the country's health status and long-term trends showing where the country is heading," he added.
He said that the new system would link all available health data sources including hospital records, pharmacy records and surveys to provide timely data policy action. At the very outset, the project will include 25,000 household surveys to determine risk factors for illness and coverage of key treatments from pharmaceutical products to surgical procedures. Physical examinations of family members will be done to determine the prevalence of diagnosed, undiagnosed, controlled and uncontrolled conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
Al-Rabeeah pointed out that the new tracking system will also include a survey of health facilities to identify the bottlenecks that are hampering the health facility's plans and the timely treatment of patients. To this end, the health minister added that the level of knowledge is growing dramatically in the Kingdom and the region as a whole. "Development in general and particularly in the field of health care is increasingly dependent on significant investments in IT," said the minister.
Referring to the tie-up between the MoH and the IHME, Dr Ziad Memish, deputy minister for public health, said that "this joint project will allow us to improve the health of our citizens through a rapid and effective response system." As part of the collaboration, the MoH staffers will undergo training in advanced analytical methods pioneered by the IHME with an eventual plan to create a center of excellence for health metrics within the ministry itself.
"The Kingdom is uniquely positioned to lead the way in measuring and improving the health of its citizens," said Dr Christopher Murray, IHME's director. The kingdom, like most countries in the world, is facing an increasing burden of chronic diseases, he added. "Instead of waiting for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other major diseases to take a heavy toll on the population, they are looking for the best ways to make sure that the people of the Kingdom receive the care they deserve," remarked Murray, who also delivered his keynote address yesterday.
Prominent keynote speeches at the conference yesterday included those made by Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean; professor Pekka Puska, director general of the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland (THL); and Dr. Majid Ezzati, professor of global health and chief of the School of Population Health at the University of Queensland. Al-Rabeeah also intervened during the session and also answered questions from the audience and media.
Speaking during the first session of the conference yesterday, WHO regional chief Alwan said that NCDs, mainly cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases, were the leading causes of death in the Arab world and the Middle East. "They also cause more deaths globally than all other causes combined and they strike hardest at the world's developing populations," said Alwan, adding that NCDs are responsible for an average of 53 percent of all deaths and up to to 80 percent of all deaths in some countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region.
"Cardiovascular disease is, in fact, the No. 1 cause of death in most low and middle-income countries," said professor Sidney Smith, president of the World Heart Federation. He explained the role of the organizations in the fight against the global killer and shared his vision of the future where NCDs are concerned. Smith also moderated the first session in which the panelists answered several questions ranging from obesity to the intensity and prevalence of NCDs in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
In his speech, Puska gave an overview of NCDs and said that the cost of health care for NCDs was a significant burden on families and governments alike. The second session of the conference focused on national NCD programs with special reference to challenges and the way forward. Dr. Philip James, a science and medicine specialist from the University College of London; Dr. Douglas William Bettcher, director of the Tobacco Free Initiative and also acting director of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion Department at the WHO; and Graham A. MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and honorary consultant physician at Barts, addressed the second session.
The session mainly focused on a complete approach that links individual risk factors with social and economic determinants of health, conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, and the influences of society.
"By addressing health systems strengthening and effective preventative measures for disease in general, health care in general will improve, thus improving treatment of noncommunicable diseases," said Alwan, who chaired the session. The speakers called for the adoption of a holistic approach based on the common risk factors.
The panelists called on physicians and policy-makers to pay due attention to the link between noncommunicable diseases and the social determinants of health, with particular focus on the broader factors that influence behavior and associated health risks. These include the conditions in which people are born, grow, and work as well as societal influences. The speakers also called for strengthening of health care systems through a comprehensive approach that places emphasis on primary health care and integrates prevention, specialized treatment and rehabilitation.
The last session of the conference yesterday focused on diet and eating behavior and called on those living in Gulf countries to adopt sound dietary habits that will benefit health and help prevent noncommunicable diseases. Even small changes can make a massive difference. "For instance, increasing your daily intake of fruit and vegetables to at least five servings can significantly reduce your risk for cancer, heart disease, stroke and other serious medical conditions," said one of the speakers.
Health-promoting foods include fruits and vegetables, whole foods, whole grains, fiber, beans and legumes, and low-fat foods. "By eating a balanced diet high in these foods, you can significantly reduce your risk of NCDs," added the participant. All panelists in the session were unanimous in advising people to avoid things that will raise risk factors for certain diseases. Those at risk for cancer, and even those who are not at risk, will significantly increase their risk of developing cancer if they smoke cigarettes. Drinking alcohol in excess also can increase one's risk of noncommunicable diseases.
This four-day international conference on leading a healthy lifestyle and NCDs will wrap up its deliberations on Wednesday. The official opening of the conference on Sunday night was attended by 18 ministers from different Arab countries including five ministers within Saudi Arabia alone. The IHME, which has liaised with the Kingdom, is an independent global health research center at the University of Washington in the US, which provides rigorous and comparable measurement of the world's important health problems and evaluates the strategies used to address them.
By measuring health, tracking program performance, finding ways to maximize health system impact and developing innovative measurement systems, IHME provides a foundation for informed decision-making that ultimately will lead to better health for people worldwide. The World Heart Federation is the world's only global body dedicated to leading the fight against cardiovascular disease (CVD). Its mission is to ensure that people all over the world live longer and better lives free of the risks of heart disease and stroke with particular focus on low and middle-income countries.