Globally, new hybrid models of care delivery involving face-to-face and remote care are emerging post-pandemic, ensuring constant patient-physician communication and patient experience are not compromised. This is propelled by the increased uptake of digital health solutions such as telehealth.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is moving in the same direction, and this is evident from the strong growth forecasted for telehealth, which includes virtual visits, mHealth, and remote patient monitoring (RPM) in the region. This is estimated to reach US$415.4 million by 2025, according to a Frost & Sullivan analysis. While virtual visits/ consultations have an emerging adoption rate, remote patient monitoring technologies currently have a low adoption rate in Saudi Arabia.
The evolving telehealth landscape
The adoption of digital health solutions such as telehealth is rising in the Middle East, especially in markets with high digital/smartphone penetration among the population, like in the KSA.
The market is ripe for investment and the launching of new products as consumer awareness and acceptance of digital health solutions continue to increase. In late 2021, KSA-based telehealth startup Cura closed a Series A investment of US$4 million from ELM and Wa’ed (the entrepreneurship arm of Saudi Aramco).
Other national and international vendors include healthcare-focused companies such as Altibbi, Babylon, and Tabiby, and others such as Saudi Telecom Company. Vendors see strong opportunities in this market and are experimenting with B2C and B2B business models.
As health insurance becomes compulsory, over 90 per cent of healthcare spending in the next decade will be driven by private insurance; therefore, the need for management and preventive care will intensify the competition among private participants. These vendors position themselves as partners in the patient’s journey toward preventive care, chronic disease management and post-acute care monitoring services. These will also be the three core areas for providing telehealth services in the future as countries look at reducing costs of care and increasing efficiency and quality of care. This will further drive the telehealth market in this region.
Surge in telehealth due to COVID-19
A strong boost to the uptake came from the COVID-19 pandemic when the only method for care delivery was virtual. In addition to the SEHA app, which was introduced in 2018 to manage virtual care, several other apps were introduced during the pandemic to manage patient populations.
Digital health applications — Seha, Mawid, Tawakklna, Tabaud and Tetamann — effectively facilitated healthcare delivery to COVID-19 patients in the region.
Initially part of the Vision 2030 strategy, efforts were focused on workflow digitization of public and private healthcare providers with electronic health records (EHRs) and clinical workflow management systems. More recently, the pandemic forced Saudi Arabia to adopt other digital solutions that are more consumer-centric and allow for virtual care.
While globally as well as in the KSA, the adoption of telehealth has dipped slightly since the start of the pandemic, there is no going back to pre-pandemic levels. Healthcare provider bodies and patients will continue to demand virtual care services.
The government impetus — a key driver
The Ministry of Health (MoH) of Saudi Arabia has recognised the importance of care digitisation and continuously updates its regulations regarding its application in a positive direction. It is mandated that telehealth be included in healthcare insurance coverage by public and private bodies (MoH).
This is a major driver for the continued adoption of telehealth — almost making it a standard of care in the country. Further, access is assured via the Seha, the free Saudi mobile app issued by the MoH. The app provides visual medical consultations and allows all citizens anywhere to have face-to-face medical consultations with their doctors across the KSA.
Several other apps support virtual care delivery. In addition, the National Health Information Center launched the Saudi Telehealth Network initiative to connect health care facilities with primary health care centres and hospitals in remote locations using telehealth solutions. Further, the Saudi Commission for Health Specialties (SCFHS) recently launched a telemedicine training programme for remote patient contact. The programme is open to all health practitioners, who will receive three hours of training in the tools for treating patients remotely using digital technology (Arab News). Government support is among the most essential aspect of healthcare digitisation, and KSA is leading the charge.
Telehealth is here to stay
While there are several noteworthy developments for telehealth in Saudi Arabia, scalability and ensuring continuity of uptake will be most important in the long run. A continuous increase in the incidence of chronic conditions and an increase in the millennial population that demands on-demand and quick access to care are the key reasons for strong telehealth demand in the country. Despite a dip in the growth rates of virtual consults across the globe, there is no reason for the adoption to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2022.
Further, as care-at-home models emerge, remote patient monitoring will see strong uptake. Saudi Arabia has only seen some RPM pilots, and no scalable deployment has been achieved. With the growth in the aging population and focus on reducing healthcare costs, RPM has a strong potential to manage patients at home. So far, the advantages of these tools for managing patients remotely are clear, and patients and physicians are convinced of the benefits.
As time passes and more evidence of the use of telehealth for effective virtual management of diseases emerge, healthcare providers and patients will demand a single-point virtual health solution. Virtual care platforms will be in great demand, and vendors will need to focus on creating an all-in-one solution to support provider organisations.
It will also be important for vendors to innovate pricing models and B2B2C go-to-market strategies and integrate patient engagement solutions to create the true “digital front door” experience for KSA residents. However, vendor developments, healthcare providers and public sentiment, and favourable government initiatives support the country’s healthcare objectives of Vision 2030, which are well on their way to being achieved on target.
Ministry of Health KSA
— Chandni Mathur is the Senior Consultant, Healthcare and Lifesciences Practice at Frost & Sullivan.