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HEALTHCARE | Arianna Danganan, Taiwan
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Taiwan turns to AI-driven tech amidst shrinking hospital counts

Preventive AI tech could offset rising costs that have axed hospital counts to 490 and added the financial burden on the elderly, experts said.

Taiwan-based firms in both the ICT and traditional industries are embracing opportunities to squeeze big data analytics into smaller, more portable medical devices amidst a drop in the number of hospitals in the country in a bid to provide continuous comprehensive healthcare to its rapidly ageing population.

"A rapidly ageing population together with rising costs associated with it are putting further strain on the healthcare system, and this is a continuous megatrend affecting the medical industry," Brian Chong, vice president for Wistron Medical Technology Corporation, said. Chong is set to be one of the speakers at the Medical Taiwan International Medical, Health & Care Expo which will be held from 27 to 30 June.

According to PwC Taiwan's 2018 market overview, the total number of hospitals dropped from 750 in 1997 to 490 in 2016 on the back of the closure or merging of small private hospitals unable to withstand rising operational costs. Whilst private hospitals still outnumber public facilities, district hospitals have also struggled in the face of growing competition from better-resourced medical centres which are favoured by patients.

Medical care costs for Taiwan's population aged 65 and over accounted for 37.6% of total National Health Insurance (NHI) expenditure in 2014, when the elderly share of the population was 12%, according to PwC. These costs are projected to grow with the forecasted rapid rise in seniors, with Taiwan formally becoming an 'aged society' in 2018. According to Taiwan's National Development Council (NDC), the country's elderly population accounted for 3.43 million of its 23.59 million population and is projected to rise to 3.78 million by 2020.

As a result, medical device development has focused primarily on preventive and assistive technology in an effort to ease costs for patients, particularly amongst the elderly and the ill in rural areas.

Chong also noted that the integration of big data analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT) into traditional medical practices has largely benefitted the country's healthcare sector, cutting down mortality rates on the back of a reduction in human errors and early detection.

This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Ray Jade Chen, Taipei Medical University Hospital's superintendent, during the pre-Medical Taiwan expo press tour, adding that blockchain applications, which are mainly associated with fintech, and the use of predictive AI technology are making it easier for doctors to identify and prioritise more severe patients, particularly across intensive care units (ICUs).

"Patients seeking treatment for minor illnesses are a key factor behind serious overcrowding at the larger hospitals, resulting in poor working conditions for doctors and nurses, and causing a retention problem," PwC also noted in its report.

Taiwan's biomedical industry, which includes the applied biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical device sectors, is a major priority focus for the country, with combined domestic market sales totaling $13b in 2016, according to PwC Taiwan's report. Of this, the pharma sector represented the largest share at 38%, followed by medical devices and biotech at 36% and 26%, respectively.

A government-backed industry investment plan, which was announced in April 2017, aims to move Taiwan's medical device sector up the value-added chain, as well as increase its value to $6.5b (NT$200b) by 2020, PwC said in its report.

Arianna Danganan of Healthcare Asia is attending the 2019 Taiwan Int’l Medical & Healthcare Exhibition Pre Show Media Tour from 11 - 15 March, 2019 in Taipei, Taiwan. For editorial opportunities, send an email to arianna@charltonmediamail.com

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