Qualcomm plans Mideast mobile health rollout
Cairo, August 1, 2010
Rapid rollout of 3G networks and smartphone take-up, coupled with high levels of chronic disease, make the Middle East an ideal testing ground for innovative medical solutions, a Qualcomm executive told Reuters.
The wireless chipmaker is targeting Egypt and Gulf states to develop country-wide mobile health systems within five years, Jay Srage said in a telephone interview from San Diego.
"We want to provide the capability to have health monitoring and diagnosis over the wireless network, over smartphone applications, for those who don't have access to healthcare," said Srage, Qualcomm's vice-president for business development in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
The global leader in mobile chipsets is in early talks with regional governments and network operators, helping build momentum to tackle major health priorities.
Still, there is three to five years of work to be done with developers and operators before asking for government investment counted in billions of dollars, Srage said late last week.
"You need to show them that something works," he said. "At the end, if you want to implement a nation-wide, sophisticated e-health infrastructure there has to be significant investment."
Saudi Arabia allocated $16.7 billion for healthcare in 2010, of which more than $6 billion was for e-health, he said.
But Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, spent only $106 per person in 2007 on health, some five times less than Turkey with a similar population size.
A fifth of Egyptians live on less than $1 a day with many complaining of poor access to health care.
Arab countries have much higher rates of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease than African and Asian countries, according to World Health Organisation data, though prevalence is still lower than in Europe and North America.
The UAE boasts the deepest regional penetration of smartphones, at around 15 percent of the total market, while Saudi Arabia has 10 to 12 percent and Egypt 5 to 8 percent, Srage said.
The five-year road map would start with small-scale applications. For example, a rural patient with a skin ailment could send a photograph of the affected area to a specialist for diagnosis, or portable ultrasound conducted in local clinics could be evaluated in medical centres many kilometres away.
"You should see the small applications being deployed towards the end of this year, maybe mid-next year," he said. The next step would be to integrate into hospital systems before graduating to national e-health networks, he said.
In the mid-term -- once small-scale applications have proven successful but before government steps in -- device producers, software designers and network operators would send medical information between hospital and patient in real time, he said.
A heart rate monitor could run for two weeks and alert a doctor when abnormalities are noted, for example.
Srage, an American of Lebanese descent who spends less than half his time at his Dubai base and the rest split between regional and global appointments, said success in the region could prompt similar schemes in Latin America, Africa and Asia. - Reuters