Mobilising healthcare

Wireless technology has the potential to transform healthcare in the Middle East and Africa

Tags: Booz & CompanyQUALCOMM Incorporated
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Mobilising healthcare Electronic medical records are gradually moving into mainstream care.
By  Nithyasree Trivikram Published  August 8, 2010

Direct health spending in the GCC will rise by 300% to $60 billion in 2025 compared with $15 billion in 2008, according to McKinsey & Company, a US management consultant.

One of the main drivers for healthcare in the GCC is the rapid population growth, which is paving way for the governments to embrace advanced technologies in improving healthcare delivery.

While telecoms technology has been deployed in healthcare for a long time now, the evolution of the internet has brought in a major transformation in the way healthcare is delivered, via various applications such as electronic medical records (EMRs), tele-education and tele-consultation.

Don Jones, VP of health and life sciences at Qualcomm, says the Middle East healthcare industry is “at the early stages” of building an integrated ecosystem of electronic health (eHealth) and mobile health (mHealth), and is set to experience further convergence of wireless communication technologies in order to tackle the numerous challenges in healthcare delivery.

“Chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory ailments are widespread in the region, with diabetes alone affecting 10-20% of the population in the GCC. Overall, the quality of health is not on par with that of the Western world, particularly in rural areas, but telemedicine can help bridge this gap and ensure high quality healthcare,” Jones says.

But these challenges also present an opportunity to companies involved in the mobile sector. For example, Jones stresses that access to timely information is critical in the healthcare sector. “Moving away from legacy infrastructure and processes toward next generation diagnostic services means healthcare will be provided quickly and efficiently while also reducing cost of healthcare. Initiatives by the government, handset manufacturers, operators, and hospitals alike should work together for mHealth – both in developed and developing countries,” he says.

Emerging markets

Jones says the Middle East and parts of North Africa have seen a rapid growth of high-speed wireless networks over recent years, and that this is making a significant difference to healthcare.

“Not too long ago, the extent of wireless communications’ contribution to saving lives was the emergency number or a doctor’s pager. Nowadays, people are starting to rely more and more on their mobile phones for services such as healthcare, and Qualcomm is working towards providing solutions to enable easier access to healthcare through wireless communications so as to improve overall healthcare services, by providing real-time diagnosis, and in certain cases, prevent the occurrence of an episode with a patient,” said Jones.

“In future, mHealth solutions will integrate with hospital e-Health policies and regulatory initiatives to offer infrastructure services such as emergency response, continuous monitoring, say 24/7 heart rate monitoring, thereby offering a new breed of healthcare delivery services across the region,” Jones adds.

Qualcomm is also working on a number of projects in the Middle East and Africa with national governments and their health ministries.

“In Kenya, we have teamed up with telco operators to streamline the supply management of antiretroviral medicines (ARVs) using 3G wireless. As part of the project, participating sites in Nairobi, Kenya have been equipped with computers, software and support equipment for wireless connectivity. The system enables clinics and pharmacies to better track their medicine inventories, and thus make sure ARV medicine supplies are more efficiently tracked and dispatched to the clinics that need those most.”

Jones adds that Qualcomm is also working on wireless application projects in Thailand for online physician consultation, and in Portugal providing specially crafted text-to-speech solution for the physically challenged. “Mobile wireless makes these innovative healthcare solutions possible, and we are working to bring these types of creative solutions to the Middle East and other countries around the world,” Jones adds.

Data transmission

Wireless technology is also bringing huge benefits to the way patients’ medical records are stored and used. Indeed, electronic medical records (EMRs) are gradually moving into the mainstream in many developed countries.

“The EMR’s timely submission of patient data helps government to fasten the process of identifying and prevention of disease outbreaks and other critical emergencies. Wireless access for health utilises 3G technology to enable a locally developed electronic health record system,” says Walid Tohme, principal, Booz & Company, a management consultancy firm.

Furthermore, EMRs fit into a broader system known as integrated healthcare networks (IHNs), in which EMRs are able to interface with various clinical and administrative systems, helping to drive efficiency in the healthcare sector. Tohme says that in order to gain efficiency throughout the hospital, stand-alone EMR is interfaced with other clinical and administrative systems such as radiology information systems, pharmacy information systems or lab information systems, to create what is called an Enterprise EMR.

Looking ahead, Tohme thinks government departments responsible for healthcare must assess how telecoms technology can be deployed in the healthcare sector. “It’s definitely with the respective Ministry of Health (MoH) departments to take more active role in being good eHealth players, and I think it is becoming more of a reality,” he says.

In the UAE, Abu Dhabi Health Authority is one government department that is moving in the right direction. “It is taking a very proactive role in being a regulator/policy maker in bringing together all the players so as to build a highly interoperable healthcare framework,” Tohme adds.

“It’s not just technology in healthcare, but it is also about changing medical data, for example, the availability of content to mobile applications such as receiving blood results from hospitals onto a patient’s mobile phone etc. Here, technology and content are to play a dual role.”

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