Before moving forward with the article, I thought that it would be important to define what we mean by digital health. On this regard, I liked what Jack Young, Senior Director of Qualcomm Ventures said, “There’s an important distinction to be made between digital health and health IT.” He continues, “Digital health utilizes technology to improve health and wellness outcomes, not just taking technology to automate a process. Digital health encourages a seamless connection between different technologies, drives continuity of care, reduces care gaps and ensures the early initiation of preventative care.”
There is no doubt that the Middle East region is facing different health challenges. The issue here is not with the infectious diseases, but rather with the non-infectious and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, which at the end of the day reflect the health lifestyle followed in the region. For instance, based on the International Diabetes Federation report, more than 35 million people in the Middle East and North Africa suffer from diabetes, and this number is expected to grow to 72 million by 2040. What even increases the government expenses burden on health is not just the shortage of medical staff and the lack of quality and efficiency of the staff, but also the shortage of beds in hospitals, which makes the patient compelled to have his/her medical treatments outside his/her country and on the expenses of the country.
If we look at the smartphone industry in the Middle East, based on 2014 statistics, it was expected that the region will have the presence of smartphones by 39%. Based also on a questionnaire conducted by Cisco in 2014, it showed the presence of smartphones in the UAE with 73.8%, bringing it to the forefront amongst the whole world. Saudi Arabia followed the UAE with 72.8%, meaning that about three quarters of those countries’ population use smartphones.
Those statistics in turn make the Middle East a suitable environment for digital health which plays a vital role in enhancing the individual’s lifestyle and enabling self monitoring of one’s health, and consequently enhancing the health level of the person. For instance, using digital health the person would be able to monitor different health conditions in the body in real-time by using a wearable, and connecting that wearable to some app which analyzes the results and provides the person with a report on those results.
Someone may question about the need for such technologies (i.e. digital health), especially that the importance of health and healthcare should be a default concern for the human being. If it were like that, we wouldn’t be facing such increasing percentage of chronic diseases in the region. But I believe that the issue of self-care in the world in general, and in the Middle East in particular is governed by two factors: (i) education and health awareness; and (ii) self-monitoring of one’s health.
It should be important to note that at the time courses and media could contribute sufficiently in raising health awareness, digital health could also contribute to such awareness. Take for example an app which tracks the distance you have walked in a specific day, and provides you with advice on the importance of walking and losing weight. Such apps play an important role in raising your health awareness, especially that smartphones are in the individual’s possession most of the time.
With the speed of life and the many tasks most individuals need to handle on daily basis, this makes it hard for the person to monitor his/her health, and may even cause the negligence of one’s health. But, in digital health, you can use some apps that would remind you frequently on practices to follow for better health, or monitoring different health conditions such as heart beats or the level of sugar in your blood.
What encourages the adoption of digital health in the middle east is the increasing interest in health in the region, especially that estimates show a growth in the healthcare industry investments which will be more than $150 Billion in 2016. Different events and exhibitions have also been carried in the region, like the Digital Health Live event in Dubai last year, and other conferences that introduce digital health products like HIMSS Middle East which also took place in Dubai and Abu Dhabi last year. A big event took place beginning of this year in Dubai, namely Arab Health, in addition to two other events that will take place soon: Building Healthcare Middle East and Technology and Innovation in Digital Healthcare, both happening in Dubai, in addition to Saudi Health which will take place in Riyadh.
If we conclude something from such exhibitions and events, we can realize not only the increase in health awareness in the region, but also in the increase of digital health awareness and investment. The issue which still remains is in the amount of education and awareness of digital health in the region, which is not consistent with the industry growth. Media companies thus need to increase their efforts and resources targeting the digital health industry in the Middle East, which in turn will bring the awareness of the importance of digital health to the individual, in addition to attracting investors and startups to the region.