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Telemedicine is booming in the GCC thanks to COVID-19

COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation in every sector of the economy, including telehealth

vHealth, a UAE-based telehealth provider, has seen a 500% increase in the usage of their app The GCC healthcare market is now estimated to reach nearly $40 billion in 2021 UAE's Doctor for Every Citizen telemedicine service has provided 83,000 telemedicine consultations

COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation in every sector of the economy, including telehealth.

Telemedicine industry leaders in Bahrain and the wider GCC have reported a significant rise in the demand during the COVID-19 period. According to new research from Think Tank Derasat, government agencies and ministries across the region have played a key role in urging healthcare facilities to offer telemedicine services, which include the delivery of remote clinical services, from teleconsultations through to online prescriptions, via computer and smartphone.

The report follows the announcement by vHealth, a UAE-based telehealth provider, that has seen a 500% increase in the usage of their app between March and September 2020. 

According to vHealth’s parent company, Aetna International, the UAE has been “quicker than most” to embrace telemedicine technology, finding that “54% of UAE expats are highly likely to use virtual healthcare services to access primary care, or14% higher than the global average.”

The report suggests there are multiple reasons behind the fast adoption including improved privacy around traditionally sensitive issues like mental health being another.

According to Sarmad Ahmad, Managing Director of Bahrain-based mental health start-up Saaya Health, “COVID-19 has been a game-changer for attitudes towards the treatment of mental health across the region. I would say we have moved forward 5-10 years in the space of less than one year. We have seen an accelerated cultural shift and there is a new support network growing up for personal therapy.”

Doctori CEO, Ahmed Mahmood, notes that the heightened demand throughout the COVID-19 period actually helped improve their products: “Dealing with an elevated number of consultations allowed us to enhance our product, streamline our internal company processes, and stabilize our product in terms of technology.”   

Read: How telemedicine can be a silver bullet post COVID-19

Read: Okadoc Brings Telemedicine to the UAE, Connecting Patients to Over 400 Doctors

UAE and Saudi healthcare markets

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) projected a shortfall of 18 million healthcare workers by 2030, telemedicine has seen a 400% increase in global inquiries during the last quarter of 2020

Virtual healthcare and monitoring have contributed to relieving the colossal burden frontline healthcare workers already carry, as COVID-19 was taking its toll on the global population. 

The GCC healthcare market is now estimated to reach nearly $40 billion in 2021. Telemedicine is a broad offering that includes but is not limited to chronic disease management, remote on-call visits, psychiatry, mental health support, and medication renewal.

An example of such innovative technologies in the UAE is the smart wristband, which asymptomatic or mild case COVID-19 patients wear for remote monitoring while they quarantine at home, leaving in-patient appointments for those who need physical and mental emergency care.  

The Dubai Health Authority’s (DHA’s) Doctor for Every Citizen telemedicine service has provided 83,000 telemedicine consultations during the period from January 2020 to January 2021. Out of the total consultations, 7251 were medical consultations for COVID-19 patients and 13,437 were COVID-19 related consultations such as queries on vaccination eligibility, screening procedures, and others.   

From the beginning of this service until now, the DHA has increased the number of doctors from 10 to 52 as of the latest stats. 

The DHA increased the number of stations used for virtual consultations from 6 to 16 stations. Doctors were also trained in sign language to provide this service to People of Determination. 

In Saudi, the Ministry of Health has established a telemedicine strategy to reach remote areas where specialty services are not currently available. Frost & Sullivan predicts that 20% of patients in the KSA and UAE will avail themselves of virtual visits in 2021.