Perfect screening: More than 3,000 android tablets were distributed by DHA to its hospitals and health centres. These will allow patients to browse information and benefit from services such as physiotherapy and rehabilitation Image Credit: Corbis

This August, Dubai Health Authority (DHA) announced that it was disbursing more than 3,000 Android tablets across all its health centres. “The deployment of Android tablets is the first step in our plan to build smart hospitals that will be integrated with the latest IT technology to enhance customer experience,” explained Essa Al Maidoor, Director General, DHA.

The tablets, say authorities, will allow patients to browse DHA services, government e-services, pharmacy and other health services such as physiotherapy and rehabilitation.

Market scenario

“The global market for mHealth (mobile health) is expected to grow to $12 billion (about Dh44 billion) by 2018. The rise of chronic and lifestyle diseases in the Middle East will mean that this region, which holds about 1-2 per cent share of this global opportunity, could see a proportionate impact,” Fahad Al Hassawi, Chief Commercial Officer, Du tells GN Focus. “The majority of this, around 80 per cent, will be driven by software and apps, with the expected 39 per cent growth in the smartphone market driving the uptake of mHealth solutions.”

It is anticipated that more than 50 per cent between the ages of 15 and 50 will install health apps on their smart devices. According to report published by Alliedhealthworld.com 247 million people downloaded health apps globally last year, double that of 2011.

du, a telecom operator in the UAE, has launched an initiative to help foster the development of mobile app developers. “We aim to build an ecosystem of health services, where an app will act as the central go-to point for access to relevant, personalised mobile health services. Our ecosystem will incorporate health and wellness, personal records, wellness devices such as Fitbit and Jawbone, health sensors for remote patient monitoring and chronic disease management,” says Al Hassawi.

With its dominant mobile telecommunications market, the UAE is leading the mHealth charge in the region. Bashar Dahabra, Founder and CEO of Info2cell, a value-added service provider, explains further.

“The mobile internet market in the country surpasses global markets. The UAE, with its huge and diverse emigrant population, is represented by continuously growing internet-hungry end users, resulting in a huge demand for mobile applications,” he says.

Last year, Info2cell launched Bio Lab, an app that enables users to view and store lab results and share them with doctors via email. It keeps a medical profile of the user, features a database of local and regional doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and insurance providers; and alerts users about the proper dosage of their medication.

Exponential growth

Farid Gasim, Director of Operations, Grafdom, one of the leading digital media agencies in the Middle East, tells GN Focus that the number of mobile apps and websites has grown exponentially over the past two years. “With the ever-growing consumer demand for smartphones and tablets, people rely on their gadgets for pretty much everything these days. As of August, global mobile app downloads on both Android and iOS have exceeded the 100 billion mark, far outpacing industry expectations.”

In 2011, Mediclinic Middle East launched a review of how digital media could help communication with patients. “The need for a mobile application was identified, which would give patients immediate access to hospital and clinic information, enable them to check insurance coverage at the touch of a button and also request appointments with their preferred doctors,” says Vanessa Batten, Senior Communications Officer, Mediclinic Middle East. Mediclinic Middle East is part of Mediclinic International, one of the top ten listed private hospital groups in the world. Since the app’s launch there have been 8,000 downloads across all platforms and nearly 2,000 appointment requests through it.

App developers in the region are currently building apps around directories. These are being commissioned either by health-care authorities, private sector healthcare providers, or pharmaceutical companies. “Several educational institutes, such as Johns Hopkins and Harvard Medical School, have partnered with local telecom companies to offer health apps too, especially in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The main focus of apps developed specifically for this region is for them to be in Arabic, and to focus on locally-relevant health issues, such as diabetes,” adds Al Hassawi.

Drivers for growth

“One of the key factors driving the increasing use of healthcare apps is that patients desire to have better control over their own health. Apps are convenient, giving instant on-the-go advice without the need to rely heavily on a physician. The ever-growing adoption of smart devices, such as phones and tablets, also plays a key role in the ever-growing popularity of healthcare apps,” he adds.

The factors pushing these apps are: the growing awareness of their importance; the high rate of internet penetration and the enhanced wireless technologies could bring about major changes in the nature of the health-care industry and, eventually, the delivery of innovative health-care services; the ability of health-care mobile applications to compete with other apps such as games, social networking and entertainment, points out Dahabra.

Gasim believes that the driver for mobile apps in the region has been the high mobile penetration rate, ranking the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the top three globally.

As to what the future holds, Gasim is of the opinion that at present medical and health care apps are undergoing an introductory phase in the region but this field has tremendous potential for growth over the next three to five years. Most changes will be linked to the automation of health-care functions such as appointments, insurance claims and record keeping, but will evolve to include a more diversified spectrum of features.

Also, emerging markets will drive new designs and leadership. “Because of their oversized share of IT industry growth, these markets will increasingly reshape worldwide design points, pricing and market leadership. The challenges consist mainly of introducing the technology in people’s health culture and implementing it in their everyday life. We have to pay extra care in making the product worthy of people’s trust and assurance,” says Dahabra.