Emerging Asia: Leading the Digital Charge

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Despite underdevelopment in many facets; Southeast Asia is actually at the forefront of a digital revolution in healthcare; with digital solutions helping bring about more efficient, cost-effective, and tailored patient care.

“Cloud-based technology, mobile enablement and fees for service models will lead to faster deployment and increased benefits for patients. Perhaps then the emerging markets will instead become the leaders, with the followers quickly shedding their ‘on premises’ technology.”

John Forsythe, PwC

When it comes to healthcare, Western societies are often hailed as the frontrunners in the digital age, exhibiting both the highest rates of internet and mobile penetration and electronic health records (EHR) adoption, according to a recent paper published by PwC, The Digital Healthcare Leap. Developed countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, the US, Germany, and of course Singapore—leading the pack for its Southeast Asian brethren—have largely transitioned away from paper-based healthcare solutions to comprehensive electronic record systems and costly digital infrastructure. And while emerging markets may seem to be stuck in the Stone Age by relative standards, a new digital health model will soon warrant a shuffling in the leaderboard.

“The lack of legacy infrastructure can [actually] liberate health systems (both public and private) from the financially daunting capital costs which have led to government-sponsored initiatives such as Meaningful Use in the United States,” observes John Forsythe, PwC’s digital healthcare leader in Australia, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand. “Cloud-based technology, mobile enablement and fees for service models will lead to faster deployment and increased benefits for patients. Perhaps then the emerging markets will instead become the leaders, with the followers quickly shedding their ‘on premises’ technology,” postulates Forsythe.

With many of these countries struggling to meet even the most basic medical needs, digital technologies provide a viable pathway to circumventing hefty infrastructure investments and pioneering new healthcare models to elevate care standards. Furthermore, implementation is more seamless, with fewer sunk costs, given existing infrastructure and equipment, lower fixed costs from building overcapacity, weaker vested interests and less divided public opinion than is typical in established markets—facets that have not gone unnoticed by the private sector.

Increasingly, for healthcare and life science companies, “digital strategy [has become] a key success factor for Asia Pacific and Southeast Asia,” affirms Keith Lostaglio, partner and head of A.T. Kearney’s health practice in Asia Pacific. “Access to patients and physicians poses such a challenge that it will be essential to use digital platforms to engage physicians and pharmacists effectively,” he stresses.

“Access to patients and physicians poses such a challenge that it will be essential to use digital platforms to engage physicians and pharmacists effectively.”

Keith Lostaglio, A.T. Kearney

Merck (MSD), for example, has recently invested in a global innovation hub in Singapore, dedicated to harnessing digital technologies. It effectively consolidates end-to-end capabilities in data analytics, cyber security, and UX/UI—collectively working in tandem to ultimately enable a greater understanding of patient behavior.

“These are the new skillsets that may not traditionally exist in a healthcare company, but are areas that we increasingly see as important for the industry,” analyzes Ho Weng Si, the director of biomedical sciences at Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB).

In the realm of the digital age, other players have chosen to leverage the power of connectivity, bridging geographical and physical limitations. Worldwide leader in orthopedic medical devices, Stryker, broadcasted the first surgery ever completed at Shanghai Hospital No. 6 over a WeChat channel subscribed to by 70,000 surgeons in China. “This example alone demonstrates the impact that social media and digital technology can have on training, education and communication,” attests the company’s president of Asia, Brent Scott.

Similarly, Hitachi Medical Systems is utilizing digital technologies to link and promote telemedicine, specifically in the more rural areas of places like Thailand or Vietnam that lack clinical expertise. “We are training technicians to send images to a regional hub where qualified doctors can diagnose and decide whether to send the patients to the larger institutions, which may require them to travel for many hours,” illustrates Leslie Chua, the general manager of Asia Pacific for the company’s solutions division. “We are focusing on the less developed areas where it is of benefit to bring medical care to the people instead of the people to the medical care,” he succinctly remarks.

“We are focusing on the less developed areas where it is of benefit to bring medical care to the people instead of the people to the medical care.”

Leslie Chua, Hitachi Medical Systems

Recently appointed as GE Healthcare’s president and CEO in ASEAN, Myra Eskes largely recognizes the profound impact of digital innovations in closing healthcare gaps, but also reveals its limitations. “Advancements such as image-data sharing capabilities present tremendous opportunities in healthcare – yet these sophisticated technologies are still highly dependent on the level of education and training of healthcare professionals in the region. The ease and speed in which an image could be shared, for example, will only go so far without a skilled radiologist to accurately analyze the data. This dire reality of remote rural areas is compounded by the complexity of data privacy concerns, which we need to mitigate as we become more digitalized,” she cautions.

Nevertheless, A.T. Kearney’s Lostaglio maintains a bullish outlook on digital adoption in emerging Asia. “There are some very positive signs that things are moving in the right direction, at least in Southeast Asia. First, most of the companies I have spoken to have autonomy in Asia such that they can develop an effective digital strategy that fits the specific opportunities and challenges in the region. The leadership of these companies understands that the challenges for digital platforms in Asia are different than in Europe or the US. Many also regard the opportunities are bigger, and understand that local and regional organizations need the flexibility to develop an appropriate strategy as such.”

From the creation of highly sophisticated telehealth platforms to filling very basic primary care gaps with technology, clearly innovation can take multiple forms across all types of healthcare systems. Private sector stakeholders are effectively redefining the way stakeholders approach or even think about healthcare. Although many still need to focus on closing critical gaps in healthcare, developing countries entering the digital era can now leapfrog traditional constraints such as access or costs and start to find themselves standing on equal footing with their peers in the developed world, if not greater.

Writer: Jun Wakabayashi

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