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Dr Noha Khater Upturns Egyptian Healthcare via Technology-Driven Processes

The Cartier Women's Initiative Awards finalist is categorically passionate about preventing blindness in diabetic patients.

Dr Noha Khater

The number of people suffering from diabetes is reaching record highs in the region, particularly in Egypt. Overwhelmed by the figures and the fact she saw more and more people were losing their eyesight due to the disease, Dr Noha Khater decided to tackle the issue. This led the talented Egyptian, one of the few female eye surgeons specialised in retinal surgery worldwide (and the only one in Egypt), to launch Almouneer Medical Services in 2014.

The network of fully digital eye care centres that focuses on preventing blindness caused by diabetes, which she runs with experienced IT consultant Dr Rania Kadry, is a unique, innovative and paper-less concept that tracks patients’ medical data records. However, providing a technological edge, digital retina screening, advanced retinal imaging and treatment by highly trained ophthalmologists and paramedics isn’t only what differentiates Almouneer Medical Services from other healthcare providers. Khater wants to impact people’s lives. Never one to overlook the human and social factors, the retinal diseases specialist is always working to inspire a noticeable change in patients’ behaviour towards their conditions, alongside providing awareness and prevention with early checks and treatment.

We talk to Khater, who acquired several PhD and fellowship degrees in ophthalmic diseases and surgery from the US, UK and Egypt, about starting the project and the challenges she faced. She also chats about her father’s support, the reasons behind the staggering increase of patients with diabetes and the different ways she is touching people, including her NGO. Khater, one of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards finalists from the Middle East and North Africa, also describes the feelings she went through when she learnt of her inspiring achievement. The worldwide business competition aims to encourage female entrepreneurs to solve contemporary global challenges. Plus, she touches on the importance of women backing and lifting each other up.

You’re one of the few female eye surgeons specialised in retinal surgery worldwide, and the only one in Egypt. Which traits have helped you achieve this unique position?
Determination and setting a goal I’m passionate about helped me get to where I am now. My dad used to tell me ,’Everything is possible, if you put your mind to it and you work hard to achieve it,’ and it has become like a motto for me.

Why did you choose to focus on blindness caused by diabetes rather than other ophthalmic diseases when you launched Almouneer?
It all started with my patients. I have always been very passionate about them. I noticed a dramatic increase in the number of patients who suffer from sight loss due to their diabetes, and I felt that something needed to be done about it. Blindness caused by diabetes is a highly preventable disease if we spread awareness and provide early checks and treatment. Because they are chronic patients, they need a very specialised service that was not available in the region. I partnered with my best friend, who is an IT professional, to create this innovative solution. We were united by a passion for helping others. Together we merged health and technology at a time when that wasn’t being done.

Did anyone try to get in your way?
My biggest challenge was changing the mentality of the people around me. I had to introduce technology in a very traditional and conservative field and above all step out of my comfort zone and the normal practice that we all know and are used to. Another challenge is the perception of women in our conservative society. We are always looked at as inadequate or inferior to men.

I consider myself very lucky.  Very early on in my life path, I have earned the support of my father, who inspired me to believe the impossible didn’t exist.  YOU are the only obstacle to your dreams, and when I hit a wall, I find another route.  It’s not always as easy as it sounds, I have had many setbacks in my life, but when I think of them, it has been a great learning journey. 

Why was it so important to make the centres fully digitalised?
Simply put, technology is the future, it is what bridges gaps and changes lives, but more importantly, it’s what diabetic patients need. Diabetic patients are chronic patients, and they need to take several tests and treatments throughout their medical journey. By being fully digital, I ensure that my patients do not need to worry about losing their medical data or keeping track of all the tests they have done before. From the medical side, it helps me and my doctors have a fully rounded and easily accessible picture of the patients’ full medical history, which not only eases treatment but also enhances it.

Why has there been such a startling increase in the number of diabetics in Egypt?
The increase is related to the unhealthy life style and eating habits. Overeating and consuming large amounts of cattle food and refined sugars has dramatically increased the numbers over the past years.

There is also a general lack of awareness about the disease (there is an estimated 5 million undiagnosed diabetics in Egypt) and its complications. What’s more, there exists an unhealthy co-existence with the disease that is unfortunately very prevalent in our society. Nearly every person you will meet in Egypt will tell you that several members of their family suffer from the disease, but the problem is that it’s too normalised and has become too much of a non-issue. And that only ensures the growth of the number of diabetics.

There’s a big number of diabetics all over the region too. Would you consider branching out to other countries?
It is my vision to not only expand across Egypt but across the Middle East and Africa to address this very preventable and devastating issue and treat these rising numbers of diabetics and save their sight. Our innovative healthcare care model will dramatically decrease the deleterious effects of this disease on the eye.

Tell us about the different ways you want to impact people’s lives.

▪      We want to keep increasing the awareness of the effects of diabetes on the eyes.

▪      We want to keep training young doctors and paramedics in our advanced healthcare facilities.

▪      We are working very hard to change the face of the healthcare system in Egypt through the introduction of technology in our facilities and creating a health-tech ecosystem.

▪      We want to introduce a preventative health care culture in Egypt. Instead of going to the doctor when it is too late or when your disease has progressed, I want to change this notion and move towards encouraging people to get regular check ups and care about their health.

How about the NGO you also established?
At first the NGO was supposed to help diabetic people in need treat their eyes, but we realised that we can have a much bigger (and needed) impact if we broaden our vision to include diabetes in general and its complications. This is an often forgotten healthcare issue that is in dire need of attention, as we can see the numbers of diabetics keep rising globally. So it is important to make people aware of the disease and its many debilitating complications that can be largely prevented, as well as to fund research and create a research and fully rounded free healthcare service in Egypt for diabetics.

What’s your greatest satisfaction throughout this journey?
My greatest satisfaction is seeing my patients happy and sight full. The difference Almouneer has made in their lives is notable. I started this journey for them. I saw how much this concept will change their lives and how much they needed it, and it was really what has been driving me all this time. Seeing their satisfaction and the impact we have had on their lives is the greatest satisfaction for me. I remember during my fellowship in the US, my role model professor used to tell his patients, ‘One thing I promise: you will never go blind.’ Saving my patients’ sight is indeed my greatest satisfaction!

What first went through your mind when you found out you were one of the finalists of the prestigious Cartier Women's Initiative Awards?
I was extremely surprised, humbled and excited. It really proved to me that hard work pays off in the end and following your passion is the way to go.

Name some other women associated with the awards (past or present) that you look up to.
Honestly I have a hard time singling out just one person. Reading about this year’s finalists has me in awe of everything that women are able to achieve and the creative force within all of us. They are all truly inspiring women with really amazing ideas and initiatives, and I am proud to be among them as a finalist to show to the world what women are capable of and to show what happens when women support and lift each other up.

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