The pandemic propelled digital health into the mainstream, and it looks like it’s here to stay.
So, with a growing population, an imperative to green the industry and a regional push toward SDG 3, what role does digital health have in meeting the MENA’s needs, and what hurdles must be overcome to capitalise on its potential?
A rise to the mainstream
Digital health had been gaining momentum in the Middle East for some time before COVID-19 hit, but the pandemic accelerated its adoption, and further growth is predicted.
In the UAE and Saudi Arabia alone, for example, projections are that the combined digital health market could reach $4 billion by 2026.
Various government policies and initiatives across the region are supporting this growth. For example, digital health is a central part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and is included in Oman’s Health Vision 2050. Qatar is also embracing the digitalisation of healthcare, and in the UAE, we’re seeing initiatives such as the Dubai Digital Health Strategy.
Vezeeta is a Dubai-based Egyptian health tech startup that has been around since 2012 and aims to provide equal access to quality healthcare.
A Vezeeta spokesperson called the platform a “holistic healthcare experience,” explaining that it’s a “one-stop shop for all healthcare needs in one place.”
Indeed, through the platform, people can do everything from booking an appointment with a doctor and ordering medication to accessing the company’s Q&A feature, where users can send medical queries to specialised doctors.
And research shows that platforms like Vezeeta are meeting a growing demand for digital health solutions that streamline processes.
The Philips Health Trends Research UAE, for example, found that 95% of respondents believe technology can help manage their health more efficiently as a result of its:
- Ease of use (51%),
- Faster access to specialists and healthcare professionals (51%),
- Easier access to results (50%),
- Ability to store healthcare data in one place (46%).
Mental health care goes digital
The pandemic also spurred growth in the digital mental health market, and since COVID, digital mental health has continued to provide new treatment pathways for people, and help to tackle the mental health backlog.
Projected to reach $370.95 billion by 2030, the global telemental health market is quickly evolving and has been identified as having a key role in filling service gaps.
Indeed, research shows that while demand for mental health services is rising, the number of mental health providers and professionals is not growing fast enough to meet demand.
This is especially true in the Middle East. Research from Economist Impact found that the number of mental health professionals per capita has actually declined in recent years and is also “lower than global averages.” Of course, this is exacerbated further in rural areas, meaning that digital services can be key in providing access to mental health care.
Devika Mankani, Holistic Psychologist at Fortes Education, Hundred Wellness Clinic and Co-Founder of Chearful.com, an online mental wellbeing platform, said digital mental health plays a “crucial role” in addressing various challenges in the mental health field: “One of the ways this is achieved is through ease of access when in-person appointments are difficult to get to,” she said.
Adding: “Teletherapy has been proven to be just as effective as in-person visits.”
Further, Mankani outlined that going digital can help penetrate through some of the stigma associated with accessing mental health services.
“Digital platforms offer anonymity and privacy, reducing the fear of judgment. Users can access resources and support discreetly, helping to destigmatise mental health,” she explained.
According to Mankani, digital mental health tools can also detect early signs of mental health issues by analysing user data. “This enables timely intervention and prevents conditions from worsening,” she said.
Mankani also highlighted that one of the key reasons for the rise in digital mental health work is access to a more affordable range of fees, reducing the financial burden for clients in need of urgent care.
Discussions around and action on healthcare’s environmental footprint are coming to the fore, and here, digital health solutions have been highlighted for their role in enhancing sustainability in the industry.
Indeed, emerging research indicates that one area where digital health can have an impact is by lowering healthcare travel and, in turn, reducing emissions.
This is something highlighted by Vish Narain, Executive Chairman, TruDoc.
TruDoc is a telehealth company that was founded in 2011, and Narain explained that there are various ways it assists with reducing health-related travel and associated emissions.
Preventative care, he said, can help reduce the need for patients to visit healthcare facilities for “more serious conditions later on.”
Narain outlined that the company’s AI-powered risk assessment tool can help providers identify patients who are at high risk for developing certain conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
“This allows providers to intervene early and help patients to prevent these conditions from developing,” he said, adding that providing care for chronic diseases can also help reduce hospital admissions and emergency room visits.
Beyond this, Narain said that telehealth solutions can help lower the number of medical procedures requiring patients to stay overnight in the hospital, reducing energy consumption and waste production.
Assessing risks and navigating challenges
While digital health comes with a myriad of benefits, both from an environmental and accessibility perspective, it’s not without its challenges.
Indeed, while digital health may decrease travelling emissions, on the flip side, it also means there’s an increasing demand for raw materials, alongside the growing issue of e-waste.
The Digital Health in a Circular Economy project (DiCE), for example, predicts that digital health devices will see annual global growth rates of almost 20 per cent by 2026. There are also forecasts that predict e-waste will double by 2050, and only a small percentage is currently recycled.
As DiCE notes, this is a complex issue that requires a holistic solution and a move toward greater circularity.
Of course, aside from waste generation, the collection and storage of health data also has big environmental implications.
On top of this, while digital health can enhance accessibility for some, a key barrier is internet penetration and across the region, there’s a high degree of variability. While 99 per cent of those living in UAE have access to the internet, this drops to 71 per cent in Egypt.
TruDoc said that here, it is advocating for policy changes that support the use of telehealth and make it more accessible to patients.
“This includes advocating for reimbursement parity for telehealth visits and for the expansion of broadband access in rural and underserved areas,” said Narain.
Further, due to the new and evolving nature of digital health, regulation is still catching up, and when it comes to digital interventions, research on effectiveness and impact is ongoing.
There has also been some hesitancy from both users and experts. That said, research has found that video telemedicine visits match in-person diagnoses to a high percentage and suggest they may be “good adjuncts to in-person care”.
Looking ahead, it’s clear that to meet the evolving needs of those in the Middle East, continued efforts are also required to remove barriers to accessibility and inclusion.
This is especially important when it comes to unlocking the potential of telemental health. A lack of access to technology and a lack of digital skills, for example, has been highlighted as potentially “further embedding inequalities.”
Additionally, it’s also true that those with higher mental health literacy are more likely to reach out for support. Here, government initiatives and campaigns have a key role in ramping up access and education and unpacking stigma.
Further, it’s key that with the continued emergence of new digital health technologies and platforms, regulation keeps pace with innovation, to ensure that quality, safety and effectiveness aren’t diluted or compromised.