The mobile industry is on the rise in the Middle East, and while the e-commerce sector is coming to life in the region, with countless group buying sites, online malls and flash sales sites, one area of concern that has been neglected is the mobile health industry.

According to a report compiled at the UAE’s Mobile Show earlier this year, the one sector that respondents overwhelmingly believe that the mobile industry can have a positive effect on was the health sector – 93% of them believe that the mobile health industry can improve the quality and availability of healthcare in the Middle East.

When it came to other industries, the figures were still relatively high. 89% think the use of mobile entertainment will increase over the next year, and 86% believe the usage of mobile cloud services will increase over the coming 12 months. The one sector which users simply don’t seem to have that much faith in is NFC capabilities, with only 48% responding positively to the possibility that it can boost the mobile commerce sector in the region.

Despite their faith that mobile services can play a positive role in the health sector, there are several obstacles that would need to be tackled in order to truly have a regional impact. Of these obstacles, patient and doctor confidence was the main concern according to 73% of the respondents, when it comes to the challenges in implementing a mobile health system. This was followed by privacy, at 53%, security at 48%, high costs at 39%, network infrastructure at 37% and technology at 30%.

If the global statistics are anything to go by, the industry is bound to pick up in the region, slowly but surely, just as e-commerce has done. So what are some of these statistics?

  • More than 2 in 5 physicians go online during patient consultations with the majority of this time being spent on a handheld device.
  • 94% of physicians are using mobile health consulting apps while on the job.
  • 63% of physicians are using personal devices for mobile health solutions that aren’t connected to their practice.
  • 41% of new healthcare technology initiatives by pharmaceutical companies were mobile apps – this time and investment shows that mHealth will work.
  • 10% of all smartphone users has a health app on their device – By 2015 33% of all smartphone users will be running an mHealth app.

Small strides are being made in the region, mostly by app developers who have found themselves in a situation where mHealth services would have been of help to them personally.

At Startup Weekend Alexandria, several of the projects were focused on the mHealth industry, with examples such as Faselty, an app which aims to make it easy to connect blood donors with people in need, on the go. Another example available in Egypt is Es3efny, providing a means of communication between ambulances and hospitals, using the Android platform.

Independent mobile app developers aren’t the only ones in the region who have plugged into the mHealth industry, with governmental organizations making strides as well. In February, the Qatar government announced a mobile service making it easy for users to find and connect with doctors, searching for clinics or physicians on the go using their smartphones.

In Egypt, Mobinil and Orascom Telecom announced the launch of Mobile Baby, a service which allows doctors to send ultrasound images, videos and 3D scans directly from ultrasound machines to mobile phones, a service which Etisalat will also be bringing to the region.

As applications and services begin to crop up throughout the Middle East, users are slowly catching on. But like any other mobile or Internet industry in the Middle East, the challenges of localization and more significantly, confidence in the services, are still very much in place. The sensitivity and privacy of health related issues in particular are a major stumbling block in the region, regardless of the need for these services, particularly in rural and remote areas.