Digital technology has made it a reality, what we could only have imagined a few years ago. For instance, the ease with which we are now able to access a medical expert and quality healthcare from anywhere in the world, and at any time of the day. Or have your prescription refilled without ever having to have left the comfort of your home or office.

Today, virtual heath offers you that access and convenience at home or on the go, from your computer or on a smartphone. It leverages technology and enables patients to view and share their medical records and test results with their doctors in real-time. It also allows them to track their immunisation status and manage medication lists, which helps improve engagement in care and treatment compliance.

While technology has facilitated this evolution towards virtual health, medical institutions, health insurers, and consumers have been slower to embrace it than was anticipated. It took the Covid-19 pandemic to push the ecosystem into widespread adoption of virtual health services over the past year and a half.

The 2021 Cigna 360° Well-Being Survey shows that people in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are more likely than the global average to have used virtual health before and during the pandemic, with Saudis in particular ranking higher for pre-pandemic adoption. As many as 73 per cent of Saudi respondents have reported using virtual health before or during the pandemic for general health advice, including nutrition and lifestyle tips.

Globally, the concept of online or virtual health and counseling has been growing in popularity as a means of accessing general health and mental health services. The benefits are that it eliminates the need to travel to a physical location and avoids interaction with strangers. 68 per cent of respondents globally said they would consider or prefer access to therapy and counseling services virtually, which increases to 72 per cent when it comes to the millennial (25-34-year-old) generation. Once again, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are two of the most enthusiastic markets globally, with 74 per cent and 69 per cent respectively.

The number of respondents in the UAE and Saudi Arabia using virtual healthcare for therapy and counseling purposes has increased significantly by 89 per cent since the beginning of the outbreak in 2020.

At the beginning of this year, the Saudi Ministry of Health launched “remote clinics”, allowing patients to consult a doctor online through purpose-built Anat and Sehaty mobile apps. The Saudi government is also implementing a comprehensive eHealth solution that is already producing significant results. Similarly, in the UAE too, both public and private sectors are collectively making strides in transforming the country’s healthcare ecosystem into a digitalised one, with 80 per cent of healthcare providers in the country using mobile devices to dispense their healthcare services.

For those suffering from mental health conditions, it is often difficult to get an early diagnosis and treatment. Most patients are hesitant to discuss their mental health issues with family members or friends due to the stigma attached to it, and the speed of everyday life holds them back from visiting a clinic.

In the survey, Saudi users cited 24/7 access (51 per cent, early diagnosis (51 per cent , and the ability to be more open about their issues (45 per cent) as the top three drivers for using virtual mental health consultation. Although respondents in the UAE also valued 24/7 access (51 per cent) and early diagnosis (44 per cent , the second most important factor here was affordability (45 per cent).

Virtual/cross-geography models of care could also become increasingly attractive to health insurers if they allow members to access lower-cost services, particularly when combined with a more streamlined claim submission and justification process. Health insurers may consider virtual health to incentivise providers to engage in higher-value behaviour, for example, offering a discount for virtual visits against a certain percentage of face-to-face visits.

We believe virtual health will capture the attention of future consumers, and when it does, providers’ interest will be a function of two things: a desire to provide care quickly and to diversify their patient mix by attracting a wider consumer base. We see that with a wide variety of players, ranging from early-stage startups to major healthcare providers expected to enter this market, virtual health is poised to become an area of intense competition for doctors and hospitals.

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