Although Karim Abd-Elhay has only held the position of General Manager of Cerner Middle East and Africa since the turn of 2020, he has been with the company for 15 years. This has both given him a wealth of experience upon which to base his approach to leadership, and a unique insight into the digital evolution of the broader healthcare industry.
Abd-Elhay began his Cerner journey as a finance controller - a role that he says gave him a firm understanding of dealing with clients, structuring and building out financial strategies and contracts, and a general sense of the intricacies of the healthcare information system. He subsequently worked his way through several positions, including Operations Manager for the Middle East, where he actively drove expansion into other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar, and Strategic Business Executive. In the latter position Abd-Elhay became immersed in business development and operational strategies, working more closely with clients and partners.
“It’s a journey that absolutely let me understand Cerner and how the business operates,” he explains. “Navigating your way through the core areas of the business, particularly at a strategic level, and gaining that really diverse business and industry knowledge has helped me to hone the ability to focus on the bigger picture. Each of those roles involved understanding the long-term implications of strategy or investment, or any other decision-making, and that’s certainly shaped my approach to leading - I’m driven by long-term outcomes for me and the business, not only short-term achievements.”
Cerner is an organisation built on a strong culture. The company, which alongside its Middle East operations has its headquarters in the U.S., provides intelligent, technology-driven solutions for the healthcare industry. This includes a suite of digital solutions designed to streamline clinical workflows, network and security services, technology and consulting, end-to-end revenue management cycle technology and more. Each of these is underpinned by a philosophy that drives the business and is centered around a belief in a world without medical error that is underpinned by an integrated, patient-focused system that allows information to flow across the health economy.
“We pride ourselves on our culture and vision,” says Abd-Elhay, “and every person in Cerner, regardless of his or her position or level in the business, is expected to be driven by core pillars that we all follow: respecting each other and collaborating together, delivering on our commitments, behaving with integrity, innovation and simplicity.” The latter, he notes, is particularly important in an industry that is increasingly being driven by technology and digital transformation. “Innovation is really important - in our business, it has to be - but equally so is the simplification of that technology. A lot of our work involves looking at our client processes and delivering smart and innovative ways of getting more out of them to improve both their business and the healthcare sector.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, given his experience in the industry, Abd-Elhay is well versed in the pace of change sweeping across healthcare. Technology is, he explains, playing a key role in the shaping of the future industry. However, the sector has been slower on the uptake of some innovative solutions than others. “It’s not as advanced as some other sectors, like banking for example,” he explains. “And that’s really because of the complexity inherent in providing healthcare. Any decision you make, any new technology you implement can have the ultimate impact on a patient and there are so many factors that must be considered in any new adoption. Another concern around technology implementation is cost; there is a lot of discussion around how to achieve all of the necessary objectives with less resources, or certainly smarter use of resources.”
A counter to the second point is that, as with countless other industries, the implementation of advanced digital technologies does bring efficiency both in terms of operations and cost. To this end, Abd-Elhay points to machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the greater use and understanding of data, as being primary drivers of change for the industry. These technologies, as he explains, are influencing every aspect of the healthcare chain. “Some are ripping up the traditional processes entirely, such as machine learning algorithms that support clinicians to deliver the best care,” he says. “Others are more patient facing. Much of that is focused on engaging the person to take an active role in preventative care rather than treating illness once it has happened, so technologies that aid a more proactive approach to offering healthcare.”
This approach - to create a healthcare environment in which technology allows institutions, clinicians and caregivers, as well as patients, to proactively improve health is a fundamental aspect of Cerner Middle East and Abd-Elhay’s vision. The company is in the midst of its own digital transformation, he says, that is seeing it embed these new innovations into its own products and services. “On machine learning and AI, for example, we have our own algorithms that can help for identifying possible diseases at an early stage and which are easy to treat at that point. We also have a similar technology for analysing patient data and highlighting the possibility of sepsis; this has seen a lot of success in reducing mortality rates. Similarly, we are working on an AI-driven solution that analyzes the conversation between the physician and the patient and helps the clinician in the documentation and ordering, giving more quality time for clinicians to spend with the patients.”
More broadly, Abd-Elhay explains that Cerner is focusing its efforts on ‘population health’. “There’s a lot of data out there, but no one is aggregating it,” he says, “whether that’s from information available with healthcare organizations perspective or the patient’s side (like physical activity, sleeping patterns, diet, and many more). We realize that the percentage of patient health data available within healthcare organizations are much less than what can be captured outside it. So, the focus right now is on using that data to see how we can monitor the health of the population to actively keep everyone healthy and to interact with people before they become patients. It’s an area, due to our expertise, that I see Cerner really excelling in and providing great value in our region. Data is transforming the sector in a number of areas, such as prediction and the analysis of patterns or behaviours that will allow a better understanding of certain diseases or illnesses.”
Of course, traditional business models and previous approaches to technology have been disrupted by the impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic. For the healthcare sector, Abd-Elhay recognises a quickening of the trend towards remote healthcare, telemedicine and limiting visits to hospitals unless absolutely necessary. “There has been some resistance to it previously,” he explains, “but COVID-19 has just changed the landscape. So, video conferencing with your clinician, mobile visits and diagnoses, telemedicine - all of these things that limit contact are just becoming more important. There’s also a noticeable shift in the importance of organisations being flexible in terms of their day to day operations and processes, how they adapt their environments to suit the needs of patients, how they can repurpose physical spaces and so on.”
Countless industry sectors continue to debate what the ‘new normal’ will look like post COVID-19. For Abd-Elhay, the increased use of technology and shift in approach to that technology will be permanent. Those organisations that have embraced innovative solutions have reacted better to the crisis and positioned themselves at the forefront, he explains. Cerner is one of those organisations. The company very quickly recognised the extent of the COVID-19 crisis and responded rapidly so as to fully support its clients. From updating its website with relevant information to actively being involved in the development of field hospitals built specifically to deal with the pandemic, the company has supported customers and the broader industry with its technology.
Naturally, to successfully deliver such measures and to keep ahead in the transformation of the sector, Cerner works with several technology companies on developing impactful solutions . Abd-Elhay recognises the importance of strong collaboration with partners, stating “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel while we can work with experts in their respective fields”. For example, Cerner partners with Imprivata to streamline and simplify the secure access of the caregivers to the system which leads to a more satisfied end users and more efficient operation. Also the business has a strong partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to facilitate its migration to the cloud. “Cloud is a journey that doesn’t happen overnight, but there are huge benefits for our clients and us from embarking on that journey, and from working with AWS. It eases the technology management for our clients and provides the required computing power for the Big Data and analytics tools that we need to apply to each client, and ensures that we are able to provide the maximum value in our services.”
Cloud forms only part of the future journey of the business. This roadmap, as Abd-Elhay explains, will be technology-driven. “That move to the cloud will really power our clients and us into the next stage of our journey and enable many of the new and innovative solutions we intend to implement. In terms of my vision, I think that the population health concept will drive us forwards and it’s certainly an area that I see Cerner dominating in the future. The future of healthcare lies in data and how to use that data to the best effect and I think we have a big advantage in that regard.”
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