The twin problems of increasing prevalence of affluence diseases and the shortage of skilled health specialists in the Middle East can be addressed using digital health technology.
The Middle East is witnessing a rapid rise in affluence diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders. There are multiple reasons for this but important among them are increased life expectancy, unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles.
Healthcare expenditures have been rising at an average rate of 15 percent since the last 8 years and this trend is likely to persist. While many countries in the region have invested heavily in healthcare, there still exist some quality gaps and structural inefficiencies.
Heavily populated urban centres are experiencing insufficient bed capacity and lack of skilled health specialists. The region also suffers from an acute shortage of trained physicians and healthcare professionals which forces many patients to seek treatment abroad at government expense.
In the recent decades, the advances in information and communication technology also gave rise to a new generation in the Middle East that heavily uses digital technology. The Middle East has a 96% mobile penetration, 46% smart phone usage and 40% internet connectivity.
This high penetration of digital devices offers some opportunities for healthcare professionals, governments and entrepreneurs to address health problems using digital health technology. The young Arab digital generation is not only comfortable using technology to address health-related issues but eager to adapt digital health solutions to promote healthier lifestyles.
For example, mPlusHealth reports that 33% of users in the Middle East would use one health app or the other by 2015. QTel launched a very popular health service that alerts diabetics with useful information on diet. The service was particularly well-received during Ramadan in Kuwait where 1 in 5 is a diabetic.
Digital health applications in the Middle East are not restricted to mobile apps. Various governments in the region have taken steps to digitise health records and intend to share them with remote medical service providers in an effort to provide on-demand healthcare.
Saudi Ministry of Health and IBM together successfully implemented IBM’s Public Health Solution for Disease Management that features a cloud-based system to connect all public health professionals in the kingdom. The technology provides tools to gather, share and analyse critical health information that helps healthcare workforce to identify and contain outbreaks such as SARS, MERS, influenza and other communicable diseases as early as possible.
Using the same cloud-based solutions, the Saudi Ministry of Health also successfully administered 180,000 immunisations and conducted more than 1000 medical investigations.
With the number of Home Healthcare Programme (HHP) recipients in the Kingdom crossing 20,000, the Ministry is also seriously considering incorporating networked wellness systems and remote patient monitoring technology.
The recently started Sharjah Healthcare City in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, widely uses electronic tracking devices and telehealth technology to link the resident physicians and specialists with their counterparts in North America and Europe.
With the healthcare spending set to touch $79 billion in Gulf countries by 2015, the digital health technology will increasingly find applications in treating affluence-diseases and delivering other health services in the Middle East. This provides many opportunities for healthcare providers as well as health vendors.