COVID-19 pushes healthcare technology transformation in Asia

Photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Wesley Farnsworth

As the pandemic takes a toll on healthcare systems, health technology companies demonstrate their capabilities and offer support.

By Joelyn Chan

Prior to the pandemic, Asia’s medical technology market was predicted to grow to about US$133 billion in 2020. There had been talks of innovation and growth in the healthcare sector, from digitalizing patient records to improving IT equipment used by health care professionals.

With the coronavirus outbreak, health care resources are now stretched to their limit. Some ASEAN nations like Indonesia and the Philippines face severe challenges, as their health care workers are exhausted and they struggle to ramp up testing to an adequate level.

To support countries in containing the coronavirus, companies working in health technology, or health tech, have stepped up to provide new strategies to help combat the pandemic.

How are health tech companies helping?

Health tech, also known as digital health, pushes for advancements in the health care sector using technology. It encompasses technology used to provide health care as well as to coordinate insurance and communicate with patients.

In the medical technology space, companies are joining the fight against COVID-19 with innovations such as iThermo, which uses artificial intelligence to spot people who have a fever in a crowd.

As people in many areas in Southeast Asia have little access to doctors, companies that connect patients to health care providers, also called telehealth companies, have also taken center stage.

The use of telehealth is growing during the pandemic. Photo: Intel Free Press / CC BY-SA

COVID-19 accentuates the importance of telehealth startups

Singapore-based telehealth company Doctor Anywhere has developed services to help patients who think they may have contracted COVID-19. Patients contact Doctor Anywhere, describe their symptoms and the staff coordinate follow-up steps like testing and treatment. Patients can speak directly to doctors who can prescribe medications and, for patients in Singapore, the medications will be delivered within three hours.

These virtual appointments greatly reduce the risk of transmission between doctor and patient. For travellers under home quarantine, they can still seek medical help for minor ailments, without going to a clinic or hospital.

The firm is an example of how a telehealth startup capitalised on opportunities presented by the pandemic, including to partner with insurance giants. The company is working with groups like AIG to help policyholders access Doctor Anywhere’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Clinic free of cost. Without having to physically go to a clinic, patients can have a video consultation and speak to a doctor within five minutes.

According to Doctor Anywhere founder and CEO Lim Wai Mun, the business has experienced a two-to-threefold jump in growth since the COVID-19 outbreak started.

DoctorAnywhere also operates in Thailand and Vietnam. Early in March, it raised US$27 million investments to further fuel its international expansion plans.

As the pandemic slows, health tech companies will be poised to make gains

In 2019, Asia Pacific health tech funding was close to US$5 billion, according to Galen Growth, a market analytics firm for health tech. For the past few years, funding has increased year on year. The uptrend should persist in the face of COVID-19, as more people and investors become educated on the benefits of health tech.

Post-COVID-19, telehealth offerings will become the norm, as the industry is integrated into people’s daily lives and health care systems. In Singapore, property developer Anchorvale is partnering with telehealth startup HiDoc to construct a telehealth kiosk with built-in sensors and devices for residents of one of its properties. Users will be able to consult a doctor virtually and pay only for medications.

But no matter how successful telehealth may be, it will not render clinics redundant. Medical liability remains a grey area in the industry, as it depends on the contract between the telehealth platform and the doctor. Any cases of malpractice, negligence or doctors with falsified credentials could breach the trust of both regulatory authorities and users.

While the impacts of COVID-19 have been devastating, it has accelerated the use of digital health solutions. Health tech companies will continue to try to maximize their current momentum and overcome road blocks to implementing new technologies.