Healthcare

Telemedicine and diabetes care in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

July 06, 2021

Global, Middle East

Telemedicine and diabetes care in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

July 06, 2021

Global, Middle East
Elizabeth Sukkar
Editor, The Economist Intelligence Unit

Elizabeth is Managing Editor and Global Healthcare Editorial Lead in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Thought Leadership team. She has been a journalist and editor for more than 15 years, covering healthcare policy, R&D and science for medical journals and UK newspapers, including the British Medical Journal and the Guardian. Before joining the EIU, she was the deputy news editor at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, where she ran the news and analysis desk, and was often called to comment about healthcare issues on BBC radio. She also managed a team of international journalists when she was the world editor of Informa’s Scrip Intelligence, a global publication on pharmaceutical and healthcare policy, where she won the Informa Journalist of Year award. Before moving into journalism, Elizabeth worked as a pharmacist in community, hospital and health authority settings.

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Learn how healthcare systems in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have used telemedicine to remotely monitor and manage people living with diabetes during the pandemic. The experience and lessons may serve as a compelling guide for other countries in the Gulf, where many have a high prevalence of diabetes.

Executive summary

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are two Gulf nations witnessing an explosive growth in the prevalence and incidence of diabetes, having some of the highest rates in the world. According to 2019 reports, prevalence is as high as nearly one in five adults (18.3%) in Saudi Arabia and about one in six adults (15.4%) in the UAE. Telemedicine has been an important part of care in these countries’ evolving healthcare services to keep affected patients healthy and costs down. 

Treating and managing diabetes requires regularly collecting and monitoring patients’ blood glucose data. Patients with diabetes are used to self-monitoring blood glucose levels, with medical consultations relying more on the transfer and analyses of their self collected data rather than the doctor’s handson inspection. This makes telehealth a natural progression in the diabetes care pathway and it feasibly could play a bigger role compared with many other diseases. 

Yet, as with most countries, the use of telemedicine in general, and for diabetes in particular, has been gradually growing but largely underutilised. That changed during 2020, when covid-19 lockdown restrictions limited in-person access to non-urgent clinical care, and with that telehealth for diabetes management increased dramatically. From this experience, these countries are learning many lessons that can help to shape future approaches to diabetes care.

As this briefing paper explores, there are several reasons why the rollout and adoption of telehealth for diabetes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been particularly noteworthy, and why these successes are worth continued examination:

Diabetes care has been in dire need of enhancement: it is well known that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a high prevalence and projected increase in diabetes among their populations. The resulting healthcare costs are significant. It has become imperative to national health, as well as healthcare budgets, that better, more innovative and sustainable management and prevention tools are explored to their fullest.

The legal framework is expanding possibilities: telemedicine has long been on the radar as a cost-effective option, but only recently—and just prior to the covid-19 pandemic—have regulation and legal frameworks allowed it to take shape. Leading up to the pandemic, adoption was already picking up. 

Cost models are shifting: in many ways, telemedicine has reduced costs for patients and doctors and supported social distancing during covid-19. For patients, less travel to clinics has added convenience as well. Better adherence to health recommendations can also lead to fewer costly co-morbidities and complications like stroke and amputation. For doctors, the experience has also been positive. However, some concerns have been raised regarding the increased influx of data from these apps, which requires additional time and effort for analysis, followed by explanations and tailored recommendations to patients which is more intensive, and may require updates to how providers are compensated. Going forward, advances in predictive modelling may improve the efficiency and quality of care. Clinics will also have to determine the safest and most cost effective hybrid model of in-person and virtual clinic interactions.

No going back: according to those interviewed and studies published, the rapid rollout and adoption of telemedicine for diabetes have been largely welcomed and deemed successful by many patients, doctors and the wider health system. Emerging evidence suggests telehealth is helping this population to achieve better self-care. More long-term studies will be needed to judge its true safety and efficacy, as well as cost effectiveness, but doctors and patient groups we spoke to are keen to progress this care pathway based on the experience during covid-19. 

 

 Arabic version

 

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