Gulf hospitals flock to digital health to manage lifestyle diseases

The Middle East is accelerating its take-up of digital healthcare technologies following lessons learned in the Covid-19 pandemic

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Amid the pandemic, Gulf healthcare systems have been put under unprecedented pressure and, like the rest of the world, the region was pushed to re-evaluate its health processes, particularly in tracking infections and treating patients remotely. 

But as the crisis subsides, important healthcare policy lessons have been learned, and trends towards digital healthcare have been accelerated.  

The Middle East and Africa e-health market was valued at $989m in 2020 and is growing at nearly 13% a year, according to Market Data Forecast. E-health broadly covers IT and e-communication in the healthcare sector – making medical care simpler, more accessible and less expensive.  

More widely, digital health – which comprises technologies such as mobile health, telemedicine, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data – is a rapidly growing international industry that will be worth $504.4bn by the end of 2025, according to Global Market Insights.  

In the Middle East, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer and diabetes, are rising steeply, fuelled by increasingly unhealthy and sedentary lifestyles.  

According to the International Diabetic Federation, more than 55 million adults aged between 20 and 79 were living with diabetes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in 2019, and this figure is expected to increase to 108 million by 2045. In the face of this, regional governments are turning to technology to track disease trends and monitor chronic patients’ adherence to treatment schedules.

At the forefront of healthcare disruption

According to Aaron Han, consultant, infection control and informatics at Dubai-based King’s College Hospital London – UAE, the Gulf is at the forefront of healthcare disruption and transformation, and the pandemic has hastened the regional take-up of healthcare technology.  

“Covid-19 highlighted the importance of health and its tight integration with the economy – accelerating investment in building and deploying the digital platforms and infrastructure needed to scale and make an impact on health and wellness,” Han told Computer Weekly.  

“The technologies that provided benefit during the pandemic included big data and AI. There is a growing broad-based adoption of electronic medical records, phone and app-based medical interactions, interoperability, and information exchanges.” 

Han said disruptive regional health technology is increasingly being deployed to manage chronic diseases, as well as enabling personalised and individualised approaches to treatment, wellness and prevention.  

“Key technologies will include point-of-care and continuous monitoring devices, as well as analysis of large datasets,” he added. 

Growing digital health investment 

Jebin George, programme manager, industry solutions at IDC Middle East and Africa, forecasts healthcare to be one of the fastest-growing sectors in the Gulf region, fuelled by the rise of digital health initiatives.  

George said investment will broadly focus on three areas: remote health, data-driven healthcare and intelligent automation. 

Remote health covers virtual consultations and personal wellness, using video-conferencing and wearables; data-driven care includes data sharing across the entire healthcare system to provide a seamless patient experience; and intelligent automation involves AI-enabled customer diagnosis, as well as robotic surgeries and internet of things (IoT)-based asset tracking. 

George said digital health initiatives are supporting Gulf hospitals and medical centres in their drive towards better operational efficiency. 

“Streamlining operations and reducing costs are the biggest priority for healthcare providers,” he said. “Process automation, data-driven insights and IoT-enabled asset management are being used for these purposes.”

Patient experience is also a key priority for Gulf healthcare institutions, said George. “Utilising digital technologies to provide a seamless experience to patients, such as location-agnostic care and a streamlined in-hospital experience, is paramount,” he added. 

Mounting costs 

According to Ranjith Kaippada, managing director at Dubai-based IT integrator and service provider Cloud Box Technologies, the mounting cost of tackling NCDs is an increasing concern for government authorities.  

“Digital healthcare can be used to efficiently manage NCDs by using wearables to track patient movements and calories,” he said. “Pacemakers and stents can also send periodic data over the internet to monitor the health of organs and reduce the risk of post-surgery effects.” 

Kaippada said AI is at the forefront of regionally transformative technologies as healthcare organisations gain the capacity to process information more precisely and accurately.  

He added that the Middle East region has been quick to adopt telemedicine techniques – enabling access to a global pool of doctors to overcome geographic boundaries and relieve pressure on local health systems. 

Challenges ahead 

IDC’s George said one of the biggest challenges the Gulf faces in implementing healthcare technology is the varying maturity of players in the sector.  

“Unlike other sectors, information sharing is vital to bring about radical changes in the healthcare sector,” he said. “Health organisations have their fair share of siloed legacy systems, which act as a major hindrance to digital transformation initiatives. To break the silos and prepare for the post-pandemic world, Gulf healthcare organisations are actively pursuing infrastructure and application modernisation.” 

Han added that the Gulf population is “very high tech” and regional patients will demand a high level of service.  

“Unfortunately for healthcare, we often lag behind other service providers in offering a high-quality and problem-free seamless patient journey and experience,” he said. “Getting it right at the time of product launch – and making the process self-correctional – will be important.”

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