With a recent IDC Health Insights survey of hospitals across the MEA identifying a strong correlation between IT infrastructure investment plans and a desire among hospitals to increase patient satisfaction, healthcare providers across the Middle East are increasingly switching their attention to the so-called third platform technologies of mobility, cloud, and big data and the benefits they can bring. So what does the future hold for eHealth in the Middle East?
Given the wide array of emerging information and communication technology (ICT) tools that now reside at their finger tips, the focus of eHealth stakeholders across the region is increasingly on enabling the remote management of diseases, improving data exchange and collaboration across healthcare agencies, increasing workforce efficiency, and ultimately expanding the coverage of adequate healthcare services to a wider population.
We are already seeing this in the digitisation of patient information (including medical records and diagnostic images), the deployment of picture archiving and communication systems (PACS), the implementation of healthcare information systems (HIS), and the emergence of telemedicine initiatives aimed at mitigating disparities in healthcare access, which is proving particularly relevant for large countries and those with strict workforce constraints.
But with more and more importance being given to the management of chronic diseases, mobility is becoming an increasingly valuable add-on to telemedicine services, although the lines between telemedicine and mobile health are rapidly disappearing. Indeed, IDC expects mobile health solutions to gain traction both within and beyond telemedicine, with telemedicine services based on mobile platforms becoming increasingly common. There will also be an increase in demand for telemonitoring services, which may combine mHealth and telemedicine systems to enable mobile monitoring of patients with various chronic diseases.
However, the opportunities for mHealth go beyond its use in mobile-enabled telemedicine. In addition to the application of mHealth solutions in the process of care delivery, mobile technologies are being further leveraged to support various other functions and objectives of healthcare systems, including the provision of medical education and training, the enablement of clinical decision making, the facilitation of administrative processes, and the provision of support for public health activities.
mHealth solutions have promising prospects in many areas, and solutions like mAwareness, mTraining, mSurveillance, and mScreening are emerging fast. The use of mobile technologies will grow further in the areas of data collection support, patient tracking and disease surveillance systems, and the organisation of emergency responses to public health disasters. Further opportunities lie in utilising mobile technologies to address health workers’ education, skills enhancement, and medical information needs; for example, via mobile clinical decision support systems. Mobile solutions that provide education and clinical decision support for health workers (including physicians, nurses, and community health workers) will see particularly high uptake where the healthcare workforce shortage is most profound.
While mobile technologies are already gaining considerable traction in healthcare, the other elements of the 3rd Platform will take longer to permeate the region’s healthcare markets. The adoption of big data analytics may still be at a nascent stage within the healthcare sector, but providers are increasingly recognising its value, particularly in terms of its potential for managing data volume and velocity. Given the enormous role that big data analytics can play in addressing healthcare challenges in terms of improving quality of care, increasing the efficiency of scarce health workers, and managing the population’s overall health, IDC expects big data to permeate the Middle East markets over the coming years, although widespread adoption will take some time.
As for cloud computing technologies, end-user attitudes are somewhat mixed. Providers are exploring the possibilities of cloud models, with many readily acknowledging the benefits. However, they are also considering the challenges and costs associated with its implementation, and subsequently delaying their cloud-related IT initiatives. Factors contributing to this hesitation include a general lack of awareness around cloud technologies, as well as legislative uncertainty, with the conditions and criteria required for the successful implementation, uptake, and expansion of cloud computing technologies yet to be well defined.
Despite this, IDC Health Insights’ survey revealed that the overwhelming majority of hospital IT executives in urban settings plan to adopt cloud and big data analytics in the future. In the long term, GCC healthcare organisations will proceed with cloud deployments, most likely starting with private cloud models. The most popular deployments are expected to involve storage-as-a-service and software-as-a-service approaches to various applications, with patient administration systems, electronic medical records, laboratory information systems, clinical decision-support systems, and ebooking systems likely to feature among the first groups of applications to be delivered via the cloud.
Of the emerging third platform technologies, it is clear that mobility is already an indispensable asset within the Middle East healthcare sector. And while there is also undoubted enthusiasm for cloud and big data analytics, IDC maintains that provider concerns around compliance and security issues will prevent this enthusiasm from transforming into actual implementations during the course of 2014. Patience, it seems, will have to remain a virtue for a while longer.
The columnist is group vice-president and regional managing director for the Middle East, Africa, and Turkey at global ICT market intelligence and advisory firm International Data Corporation (IDC).