From hand-washing prompts on your smartwatch to apps that monitor blood oxygen levels, technological changes in the health sector have been fast-tracked during the pandemic and are here to stay.
As clinics turn to telehealth consultations for patients, the landscape of how we care for ourselves has been reset since the onset of Covid-19.
Wearable technology and home monitoring devices are now so effective, they can help family doctors build a more accurate picture of health to help diagnose illness if required to do so remotely.
One of those tools, developed by tech firm Biospectal, allows blood pressure to be monitored effectively using the company’s OptiBP app using a smartphone’s camera.
It is one of many new innovations helping clinicians monitor patients from a distance.
“The beauty of wearables is that they are easy to use and give parameters into someone’s health and well-being,” said Dr Mansoor Anwar Habib, a family medicine doctor in Dubai.
"The question is, if patients have the tools to monitor their health effectively. But we know they are becoming more reliable.
“If you pick up any blood pressure monitoring machine from a pharmacy, it will be very similar to what we use in a hospital.”
Wearable technology is usually auto-calibrated and personalised to monitor unusual patterns that could signal early illness or health concern.
Blood oxygen sensors now fitted to wearable devices can flag unusual biological signs that could signal early signs of Covid-19 or other respiratory illness.
During the pandemic, Dr Habib advised patients with chronic health problems to buy a pulse oximeter to monitor their blood oxygen levels, an important signal for Covid that could help diagnose an infection from afar.
“These wearable devices won’t give you a specific diagnosis for an illness or disease, but it will show you if something is unusual,” he said,
“If breathing is difficult, then oxygen levels in the blood will drop to below 97 per cent, an indicator of a potential infection.
“I have tried the oxygen saturation monitor in the hospital with the Apple Watch to measure SPo2, and the discrepancy was just -1, which is really very close to the clinical result.
“It shows us air is not reaching the lungs normally.
“Identifying respiratory problems early was an important measure during the pandemic, and one way of avoiding the need for critical care.”
Smartwatches, health bands and rings can also monitor sleep patterns.
Data can help doctors diagnose sleep apnoea, which could be an associated symptom of congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes or Parkinson’s disease.
It can reveal how often someone is in a deep sleep cycle, or how often they wake up – an important insight for a physician to aid a diagnosis.
Healthcare bottleneck increases demand for remote services
A World Health Organisation survey conducted at the end of 2021 found many people were still unable to access care at primary care and community care levels.
Ongoing disruption was reported in more than 90 per cent of countries surveyed in the WHO’s Global Pulse survey on continuity of essential health services.
Rather than call a GP to book a consultation, record numbers are now turning to remote appointments to speak with a doctor for advice.
One of the UAE’s leading telehealth providers, vHealth, reported a 500 per cent increase in use of its remote services between March and September 2020.
“There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has helped accelerate adoption, but confidence in services like vHealth were already growing before the pandemic,” said Joe Hawayek, senior director and head of vHealth Middle East and Africa.
“Customers trust the service. Telehealth is becoming a fundamental feature of every corporate health plan in the UAE.”
Data from vHealth showed 25 per cent of its patients had already used the service more than once. Appointments now cover a spectrum of health concerns, with 90 per cent of patients avoiding the need for further care.
Private healthcare provider Mediclinic partnered with Okadoc, an online platform allowing patients to access services remotely that went live in April 2021 across 28 facilities.
It gave access to 1,000 bookable doctors and 500 telehealth providers.
The platform saw Mediclinic slash its no-show rate for online appointments by 20 per cent, while patients reduced the time taken to book an appointment from three minutes to 35 seconds.
During its first nine months, the Okadoc platform was used to make almost 23,000 online bookings each month and enabled more than 75,000 video consultations.
“By launching our new application, we’ve been able to simplify the patient experience, increase revenues and reduce administrative costs,” said Hein Van Eck, chief strategy officer at Mediclinic Middle East.
The most common consultations booked through the platform were for obstetrics and gynaecology, followed by paediatrics and then family and general medicine.
Concerns about personal health data leaks
According to research by Aetna International, 54 per cent of UAE expatriate residents were highly likely to use remote healthcare services to access primary care, 14 per cent higher than the global average.
However, the research of more than 4,000 employees in the US, UK, UAE and Singapore revealed many were worried about the use of personal health data by employers.
It found 66 per cent of UAE employees worried their health data could one day be used as a criterion for promotion and a similar number that it might be a means of establishing salary grade (67 per cent).
“Technology has not only revolutionised how we collaborate, communicate and work, but also how organisations help support and improve employee health and well-being,” said David Healy, chief executive – Europe, Middle East and Africa at Aetna International.
“Particularly in the current climate, high-tech, high-touch corporate well-being strategies that include apps, devices, and virtual access to care services are high on the list of employee demands.”