Gary Fingerhut, Cleveland Clinic’s Executive Director of Innovation, once mentioned: “Dubai can become the international center of excellence for digitizing medicine.” He also adds: “In fact, the traditional healthcare model needs an overhaul and the Middle East might very well be the region that shows us how.”
Dr.Gautam Gulati, Adjunct Professor of Medical Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Johns Hopkins University emphasizes this by adding: “As a ‘greenfield’ the Middle East presents an opportunity to establish a sophisticated and seamless healthcare system from the ground up, versus replicating Western models.”
Digital health is in constant rise in the Middle East. When we know that healthcare spending has reached $79 Billion in 2015 in the Gulf countries, and healthcare providers in the Middle East have spent around $1.8 Billion in 2015 trying to integrate information technology with healthcare, this makes the region a suitable place for digital health investments and will provide many opportunities in this sector.
Digital health spending will not only originate from healthcare providers alone, but from individuals as well, especially that around three quarters of UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s population use smartphones. We are thus faced with a generation that not only feels comfortable in embedding technology in their life style, but also willing to adopt digital health technologies in managing their health. For instance, by last year (2015), mPlusHealth reports that 33% of users in the Middle East would use one health app or the other. Also, in Kuwait where 1 in 5 people are diabetic, the health service launched by by QTel which alerts diabetics with useful diet information was well respected and received during the holy month of Ramadan. The explosion in the use of social media in the Arab countries is also a good sign for digital health investors. According to the 2013 Arab Social Media Report: “The exponential penetration rates and the creative adoption of social media in the Arab region have opened new horizons for multifaceted innovations by individuals and developmental uses by government entities and unleashed new social trends by different forces in Arab societies. Social media technologies today are increasingly being acknowledged by different Arab government organizations as core enablers for inclusive policy formulation and better service delivery on an institutional level.”
Digital health spending in the Middle East even went to a higher level. For instance, the Saudi Ministry of Health partnered with IBM to implement IBM’s Public Health Solution for Disease Management, which is a cloud-based system that connects all the public health professionals in Saudi Arabia. Talking about governments, Saudi Arabia’s 2013-2014 budget included funds for 19 new hospitals, in addition to 102 hospitals under construction. The Kuwait Ministry of Health planned around $5 Billion worth of hospitals and medical towers to upgrade its infrastructure. And, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are building multi-billion dollar hospitals and medical research centers with both the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi and Sidra Medical Research Center.
What we have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg on the digital health spending in the Middle East. I think what yet to come will show more demand and thus more spending on digital health. This is due to multiple reasons. High population growth is expected to occur in the region. Over the next 5 years, Saudi Arabia is expected to have a population growth of 3 million, making it the largest expected healthcare market in the GCC. Increased life style diseases (i.e. diabetes, heart disease) is also expected to occur in the region, provided that the GCC is experiencing the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the world. In order to decrease the occurrence of life style diseases, GCC governments are promoting healthy life styles, and digital health works perfectly along that. There are other different reasons for the increased spending on digital health in the region, but the most direct reason could be the plan GCC governments has set in investing in the GCC healthcare IT sector which exceeded $550 Billion in 2015. The UAE healthcare market is also expected to grow by 7% until 2020, and with the establishment of Dubai Healthcare City as a free zone, this will surely increase the demand and investments of digital health.
Thus, digital health investments are increasing dramatically in the Middle East region, and the next 5 years will show a peak in such investments, consequently increasing the spending in this sector.