, Southeast Asia

The innovative future of healthcare: Three empowering tech trends 

By Chu Canh Chieu

The future of healthcare is digital, and the ongoing pandemic is undoubtedly accelerating this transition.

In Asia, the sector’s digital ecosystem is scaling rapidly owing to shifting demographics, changing consumer demands and technological innovations. According to management consulting company, McKinsey, Asia’s consumer-centric digital health solutions are expected to grow by 22% per annum through 2025. The digital health market in Southeast Asia (SEA) is seeing a similar growth trajectory and is set to benefit from rising healthcare expenditures, expected to accelerate to US$740b by 2025.

Here are three technologies that are helping to shape the healthcare landscape of tomorrow:

Virtual Healthcare  

McKinsey estimates the adoption rate of telehealth services to be 38 times higher than pre-pandemic levels. The public is eager for these services. Across SEA, two-thirds (66%) of consumers preferred teleconsultations with medical professionals over in-person consultations. According to Marsh McLennan, 97% of Singaporeans expressed their willingness to try at least one digital healthcare innovation. Driving this shift in preferences are the convenience of accessing medical records, access to quality care and less risk of COVID-19 exposure. 

The benefits of virtual healthcare are also positive for healthcare providers. Telehealth frees up capacity and protects hospitals from demand surges, a necessity for SEA nations grappling with a lower ratio of doctors to the population. As of November 2020, Indonesia and Thailand had the lowest ratio in the region—just 0.4 doctors per 1,000 people whilst the ratio stood at 0.8 for Vietnam, 1.2 for the Philippines, and 1.6 for Malaysia. Only Singapore, with 2.3 had a slightly higher ratio than China, with 2.2.

This may be attributed to the efforts of Singapore’s private and public healthcare sectors in ramping up telemedicine services, extending their services to chronic conditions, and those that require post-surgery consultations, and long-term and palliative care. Scaling its hybrid approach to healthcare, Singapore’s HealthHub serves as a single comprehensive digital entry point for all citizens to book appointments, order medications, and access vaccination records, disease risk assessments, and other health content.

Take the case of Singapore’s largest private healthcare provider—IHH Healthcare Singapore—which developed an application programming interface (API) centric, cloud-based mobile app for its patients, called DigiHealth. This enabled patients to schedule online appointments, view hospital bills, and receive real-time reminders, along with laboratory and radiology reports. Simultaneously, they developed the DigiCare app which functions as a one-stop platform for doctors to gain timely access to patients' medical data and appointments. Other functionalities, such as updating hospital policies, tracking fees and payments, also relieve the administrative burden on doctors.

Post-COVID, virtual healthcare will continue to prove helpful to address staff shortages and ageing populations. Investing in telehealth is one way to mitigate the looming talent crunch. 

Artificial Intelligence 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has recently emerged as a game-changer for the healthcare industry. It is estimated that the AI healthcare market will grow from US$6.9b in 2021 to US$67.4b by 2027. The impact of AI in healthcare is far-reaching, and back-office operations as well as clinical activities such as diagnosis and care delivery will benefit. AI applications have long been praised for improving diagnostic and surgical accuracy and opening new doors that were previously exclusive to human-based solutions.

For instance, IHH Healthcare Singapore has used AI for patient engagement and back-office work. The healthcare provider uses AI for bill estimations based on individual factors such as age, visit frequency, and conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes. This provides patients clarification regarding their medical bills before admission, allowing them to choose the most cost-effective treatment. 

AI chatbots answer patient queries and direct them to the relevant doctors for their condition. In case a patient is distressed, the bots can transfer the discussion to a human colleague for support. AI is also used to remind and confirm appointment times with patients, using a human-like voice which is automatically updated in the system records.

This, in turn, reduces the patients’ risk and time spent at the clinic, which minimises the cost and time spent per patient for the hospital. 

Data Analytics 

Thanks to modern technology, healthcare data is now widely available. Both traditional data gathered from medical records as well as new information extracted from wearables, smart devices and even social media can be used by healthcare professionals. However, making sense of the large pool of available data requires effective implementation of data analytics, which, when coupled with next-gen technology such as machine learning (a subfield of AI), would yield meaningful impacts. 

During the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, Tan Tock Seng Hospital used analytics to improve the visibility of patients’ vital signs through alerts. This enabled the limited number of medical practitioners onsite to effectively monitor and focus on patients whose conditions were at risk of deteriorating. 

Yet, as patients benefit from the convenience enabled by technological advancement, one pressing challenge that requires careful management is the use of personal data. Healthcare institutions must strike the right partnerships with technology providers that follow high-valued certifiable compliance and risk management framework.

A digital transformation marathon

The healthcare sector lagged in the digital transformation (DX) race pre-COVID, but the pandemic has brought DX to the forefront of corporate strategy. However, medical institutions must remember that successful DX implementation requires more than just technology adoption. Having a clear DX roadmap, measurable ROI targets, comprehensive change management and an experienced partner to lean on are keys to winning the DX marathon. 

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