Middle East’s globally unique e-health niches

The unique opportunity’ of hajj and pilgrimage

The Ministry of Hajj and the ‘Vision 2030’ programme related to the hajj and pilgrimage ‘Doyoof Al-Rahman Program’ has been pushing for innovation in the sector of hajj and umrah (pilgrimage). There has also been a drive for scalable and successful business models to increase the involvement of the private sector in this segment.

Every year, Saudi Arabia is host to over 300 ethnicities from almost every country in the world to perform umrah (small pilgrimage) or the hajj (major annual pilgrimage). These events not only necessitate technology and its usage but also present a wonderful opportunity for research. Information on how multiple ethnicities and ages react to the stresses and physical activities of hajj can be a hub for improving research into helping reduce, for example, diabetes. These events can also feature as the hub for propagating preventative health programmes all across the world.

Opportunities such as the hajj also mean that telemedicine and its usage can improve the experience of the visitors - by reducing queues to clinics and allowing tour-operators to take vitals and do check-ups via remote tools. In addition, simple apps and nudges via SMS can help people monitor their own health and learn about simple tricks on hydration and nutrition. The opportunity for millions of diverse visitors coming to a single place (Makkah) every year presents a chance at innovation that few places can offer.

Investments from private sector companies into telemedicine units, loT devices for health and aspects for improving the health experience of pilgrims is one of the greatest opportunities this region has to offer. The goal of the government is to create an ecosystem where private investment is possible and telemedicine (along with other start-ups in verticals such as tourism) can help the pilgrims in Makkah to use their experiences to increase their footprint across the Muslim world. It is Islamic impact investments in the heart of Islam that can have a global effect on the health and delivery of healthcare.

The emotional and mental health movement

Emotional, behavioural and mental health are very dependent on culture. The way an Indian boy will feel the pressure of pleasing his parents is not the same as how a Saudi girl will feel about it. Our behaviours are dictated by culture and perceptions. The mental health movement has not yet hit the shores of the Middle East in the way that they have done in America and the UK.

While Calm became the first unicorn in mental health in February of 2019, guided meditation apps do not have the same draw in the Middle East’s communal and religious culture. With COVID-19, the requirements and focus on mental health have also come in sharp focus. The recently added investment into Shezlong - MENA’s main mental health marketplace - and the increased uptake on Saaya Health - MENA’s only digital employee assistance programme (‘EAP’) service - shows this need closely.

Research needs to be done on what solutions can be created that are culturally relevant to the mental health of people in the region. The industry is ripe for software-as-a-service (‘SaaS’) winners such as Headspace or Calm - but what this SaaS would look like is yet to be seen.

Other avenues in SaaS and mental health include treatment software that incorporates culturally sensitive material. Dr Yasmine (2019), a psychologist in Saudi Arabia, commented, ‘The most common cause of OCD I see in Muslims is wudhu (the cleaning with water before every prayer). They’re constantly wondering if they did wudhu properly - and it can be very bad for people with OCD’.

Exposure therapy in this case would involve VR goggles that simulate a person doing wudhu slowly to learn to cope and overcome their ailment. Such solutions and devices do not at the moment exist and would prove a boon to the one billion Muslims globally.

A SaaS solution in mental health - an often ignored vertical with great growth potential - is a lucrative niche given the Middle East’s young and moneyed population.

The power of youth

The MENA region, especially if extended to Pakistan - MENAP - is a region rife with possibility. With an average age in MENA at 28 and in Pakistan at 21 (GSMA 2019a), the region is rife for adoption of telemedicine and e-health practices.

A high population, good mobile internet penetration and a high percentage of youth means:

  • • Company staffing and training on new tech is not difficult.
  • • Adoption rates for telemedicine will be high.
  • • Distrust of technology is low.
  • • The road to serious health issues (that come with age) is still long.

As mentioned above, R&D is important for healthtech solutions - and time is needed for R&D. A young population gives you time. Health issues can be studied and mapped long before the majority of the population will need it. The time is now for investment into healthcare R&D in the region. As adoption increases and tech becomes more efficient - the datapoints collected today will serve for a smooth transition into Al solutions for the future of healthcare.

This also means that the gap of supply of doctors or nurses can be reduced by introducing preventative measures now, when the population is relatively healthy.

In addition, with high adoption and penetration rates - the Machine Learning magic number of25,000 data points is easier to achieve. It is with these high numbers of data clusters that Al and machine learning can be enabled.

Historically. Middle Eastern genetics and habits have not been well researched, and this now has the chance to change.

IOMT (internet of medical things) for the region

MEA’s infrastructure, especially the GCC’s, is fast adopting to 5G. With gateways open to China and several Chinese venture funds in the region such as Gobi Partners and MSA Capital, this means access to cheaper loT devices.

The adoption of smart-home technology has been slow across MEA with most products like Alexa and Google Home either not working in the local language or not connected to the local ecosystems. loT for health monitoring - such as Vsee’s touchless sleep monitoring - may well be the best way of helping Arabian homes adopt smart-home technology.

While other devices such as Fitbit are popular, health is a growing trend with diabetes and other preventable diseases on the rise. Feeding into the growing movement of health and exercise, smart fridges, menus and healthtech loT is a niche in the Middle East that is unique in its demand and can fill the growing need of healthier living.

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