Democratising healthcare in SEA: From traditional hospitals to digital healthcare providers | Healthcare Asia Magazine
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Democratising healthcare in SEA: From traditional hospitals to digital healthcare providers

By John Young

Healthcare innovation in Southeast Asia is accelerating at a phenomenal rate, with total healthcare spending expected to increase to US$740b by 2025 from US$425b in 2021. 

In particular, strong growth in telehealth, diagnostics, remote patient monitoring, and analytics has attracted investments in digital healthcare worth US$10.7b - a 62% increase from 2020, placing Asia second only to the US.

Healthcare systems in SEA have already begun to embrace a hybrid model by combining telehealth and in-person treatment to provide a better experience for patients and staff while achieving the same clinical outcomes.

However, with SEA being a melting pot of cultures, this rapid growth and digitalization in the healthcare industry varies from country to country. 

Majority of HealthTech companies in the region are headquartered in Singapore, with the next significant base in Indonesia. 

Whilst Singapore leads the way with a more developed set-up, other markets with evolving infrastructure still have room to grow. 

Clearly, the bigger question for the region’s healthcare industry today is how to democratise progress in technology adoption so that more markets can tap on the growth of HealthTech.

Synergies between traditional hospitals and HealthTech start-ups. 

One way to speed up the transformation of hospitals and healthcare providers who have yet to adopt new technologies is through partnering and incubating HealthTech start-ups.

It is undeniable that the pandemic-fuelled acceleration in digital adoption across various aspects of life has increased the trust and preference that consumers have in HealthTech. 

For both consumers and physicians, telemedicine usage has almost doubled with increased trust in healthcare technology companies after the pandemic.

As a result, hospitals are no longer viewed as the de facto healthcare provider, with teleconsulting and other delivery models that cost less with greater convenience promised to consumers disrupting behaviour. 

However, consumers in other parts of SEA such as Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines still trust traditional primary care providers approximately 30% more than technology companies to coordinate and manage care.

Instead of seeing these two options as competing ones, traditional hospitals and healthcare providers can continue to do the great work they do while innovating to provide an even greater patient experience and diversified offerings by partnering with HealthTech start-ups.

Already, healthcare systems and personnel have picked up pace in adopting innovative technologies. The use of remote patient monitoring and augmented reality tools increased from 60% to 70%, and the number of physicians leveraging AI or machine learning more than doubled. 

However, there’s a limit to how far traditional hospitals can digitally transform without partnerships and external expert opinions. A natural next step is working with HealthTech start-ups to accelerate the process of adopting digital technologies and meeting current needs of their consumers.

The goal is for traditional healthcare systems to develop into or become part of health ecosystems that integrate both digital and physical health services, and comprise various players in the industry including brick-and-mortar providers, HealthTech start-ups, and IT vendors.

Growing importance of the Chief Digital Officer

Besides working with HealthTech start-ups, finding the right Chief Digital Officer (CDO) and building a team with relevant skill sets is also a key factor to democratise the healthcare industry within the region.

In today’s current state of healthcare, customer expectations on personalization, convenience, and speed have increased drastically. This requires a more complex engagement strategy across channels, bringing data and analytics to the fore.

Finding a single, all-encompassing digital leader can be challenging. Digital not only refers to technology, but also encompasses new experiences, ways of working, and business models. As a result, while CDOs often possess tech expertise and have served in a variety of IT positions, their experience often goes further to include user experience design, innovation, entrepreneurship, and direct engagement with business units.

Unlike other tech executives, an effective CDO must thrive at the intersection of tech and business, with the necessary knowledge and insights to design and lead digital transformations.

The roadmap ahead for healthcare in SEA

Building strong and sustainable healthcare ecosystems through partnerships and providing a conducive environment for HealthTech start-ups to thrive is the way forward as the industry banks on digitisation to meet growing healthcare needs and challenges.

Finding the right CDO and clearly defining the scope of work is crucial in integrating new technologies into existing business models and leading the digital transformation.

Finally, as a growing industry amidst global tech talent shortage, it is also imperative that the HealthTech sector prioritises creating organisations where people want to stay for the long term. Besides maintaining inclusion and engagement, increased opportunities, challenges, learning, feedback, and career coaching are also important aspects of building meaning and commitment over time, especially in a purpose-driven industry like healthcare.

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