The use of telecoms technology in healthcare is nothing new, but recent advances in healthcare-based ICT and wireless solutions have increased the scope of telecoms to play a pivotal role. This is expecially the case in the area of mobile health, which is being used to deliver services at the point of care.
As Jad Bitar, principal at Booz&Co says: “Mobile applications are approached today mainly as an extension to existing health IT, such as EMR viewers, for enterprises or as serving the user market such as WebMD app. The future is for a convergence of the two where mhealth will be used as another channel to improve accessibility and quality of care to citizens while controlling costs as well.”
Wayne Hull, Cisco UAE’s director and general manager says with the level of uptake of broadband in the Middle East, it is becoming apparent that this region is moving at a faster pace than other regions globally. Video is being heavily used in the consumer space, and the real challenge in healthcare is to make both patients and health regulations feel comfortable, and that the information that is being transmitted and advice are being shared in a secure manner,” he says.
The mobile healthcare market in the MEA region is expected to grow at a five-year cumulative annual growth rate of over 40% and become a $580 million industry, states a Booz & Co study. In the past few years, the MEA region has seen telcos come up with mhealth initiatives supported by a surge in fixed, mobile broadband and smartphone users. However, Walid Tohme, principal at Booz&Co says that this region is yet to see any mhealth offering serving as a game changer. He says: “What we have observed are mhealth services that enable patients to access information such as lab results, and visit schedules. But we are yet to see enterprise wide mhealth solutions that help hospitals or even ministries of health reshape the delivery of healthcare services.
“Apart from the basic benefits of increasing an operator’s assets usage enhancing customer stickiness, and increasing revenues from new services, Tohme says that telecom operators’ uptake on mhealth programs is to win the key battle of digitisation war. The digitisation agenda is what should ultimately be at stake here for operators,” he adds.
Baher Ezzat, regional sales director of Alcatel-Lucent enterprise for Egypt-Sudan and Levant, says that mHealth is getting more attention to enhance patient experience. “Healthcare is an underdeveloped industry in this region, and there is a big opportunity for hospitals that are green field calling for mobility requirement in place.” He quotes a recent study saying that 30-40% of physicians will own tablets by 2012. “So, mobility and mobile technology is becoming a necessity,” he says.
While Ericsson’s market development director, Andrea Petti, agrees that there is a big potential for mobile health in this region due to factors such as high mobile penetration level, and increasing levels of chronic diseases that can be addressed through mobile or remote health solutions, she sees the areas of customer education on mobile health in order to get used to remote interaction with physicians as a major challenge to its adoption. But for Moheb Ramsis, senior director of business operations, North Africa, Qualcomm, the main challenge is the lack of regulatory framework for mhealth as it is not yet defined in the MEA region. “Currently, operators are trying to understand what role they can play in the mobile health space such that the business can be sustainable and profitable,” he says.
Over 500 million people globally are expected to use mobile healthcare applications on their smartphones by 2015, says a research study. In tune with this, telecom operators along with other organisations including hospitals and healthcare providers are coming together to introduce mhealth applications to enable patients to experience continuity of care.
However, Ericsson’s Petti says that the MEA region is still in the initial stage of product development lifecycle undergoing mhealth trials in different countries. “It is not related to just customer adoption, but is also related to how much government authorities and healthcare providers will support these solutions,” he says.
Qatar Telecom has established a strategic partnership with Mobile Health Company, a mobile healthcare applications developer to offer mobile healthcare services across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. The partnership is to educate customers, giving them advice and information on diet and exercise. Another key telecom operator in the region is Etisalat, which recently signed a MoU with Ericsson for cooperation in deploying a range of mobile healthcare services using Ericsson Mobile Health (EMH) solution that allows medical professionals to remotely monitor the health of patients using mobile technology. In the MEA region, Ericsson is currently working with operators in Qatar, Oman, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
In KSA, STC launched “Easy Clinic” service, which offers a set of specialised medical applications designed to automate and standardise patients’ electronic records and work processes for healthcare providers. Mobily of KSA and Ericsson are running a mobile healthcare solution “proof of concept” for a major healthcare institution in Saudi Arabia whereby patients can be monitored remotely in a more effective manner. “Mobily mhealth solution will be a telecom-enabled ehealth solution providing wireless patient healthcare monitoring and gathering of vitals at predefined intervals and durations,” says Tohme.
However, when it comes to public-private partnerships for mhealth initiatives here, Bitar thinks there have not been many in this region. The UAE’s Du leads the Smart Health initiative that has the capability to connect patients and healthcare providers, to create a vast connected health network that will lead to improved outcomes and better patient safety. Farid Faraidooni, CCO of Du says: “In collaboration with Ericsson Mobile Health (EMH) we have introduced ‘Health Link’, a bouquet of chronic disease management devices and services to assist those suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiac conditions of CHF/COPD. These devices connect to their care providers, to allow for remote monitoring of their conditions.
“A three-month pilot of these services, monitoring Congestive Health Failure patients will be launched in October,” he states. Hull says that at the macro level, Cisco is trying to achieve what it calls “Connected Health” and some of these solutions are already running in our region. “One example is Health Presence in Jordan. The first implementation of Cisco Health Presence in the Middle East and Africa went live in Jordan in June 2011 as part of a tele-health pilot under the Jordan Healthcare initiative, led by the Jordanian government,” he says.
As Laura Quintana, director of corporate affairs, Cisco, puts it: “Using the network as a platform, the Cisco Health Presence solution combines high-definition video, advanced audio, and network-transmitted medical data to create an environment similar to what people experience when they visit their doctor or health specialist.
Cisco has also set up a unified communication solution for healthcare for the Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre with the aim of bringing in 21st century healthcare through ICT to Jordan. Mobinil, in partnership with Qualcomm, recently launched Mobile Baby, a healthcare application that enables healthcare providers in clinics to transfer patients’ ultrasound images wirelessly to family members and referring physicians for expert advice.
Ramsis says that in order to help raise awareness of mhealth, Qualcomm works on wireless reach fund and one of the projects is with Mobinil involving Egypt’s ministry of health and ministry of communications, allowing for remote diagnosis of skin diseases. “This project was launched in Egypt in April 2011, and we are now expanding it to cover new areas in the country,” he says.
Alcatel-Lucent has been working closely with the healthcare society to provide health solutions from a “connected hospital” perspective. Ezzat says that Alcatel-Lucent is working on remote patient monitoring (RPM) through its Telehealth Manager giving the capability for people with chronic diseases to gather their medical data and be able to transmit them from their home to a central location.
Incorporating mhealth into the healthcare sector will ultimately lead to improved performance on care delivery. While mhealth for hospitals benefit through increased capacity as patients are monitored remotely, patients have better care the way they want it in the comfort of their homes. For insurance payors, it will benefit with reduced costs and increased transparency of information and claims. And, for telcos, mhealth is about retaining customers in a highly competitive environment and increasing ARPU due to an appreciable amount of data that are being transferred between various players in the mobile health chain.