While much has been written on global health tech trends in recent years, relatively few studies have attempted to forecast their impact on Southeast Asia. One exception is Deloitte’s Healthcare and Life Sciences Predictions 2020, a November 2014 report that was later expanded with a supplemental Southeast Asia version.
Like the authors of the Deloitte reports, I’m generally optimistic about the transformative potential of health tech innovation, but I also believe that its impact in Southeast Asia will be limited by infrastructural, regulatory and cultural factors. Below, I summarize Deloitte’s predictions and offer my own perspectives on how they might play out in Southeast Asia’s emerging markets.
Consumer empowerment and engagement in healthcare accelerates
Global prediction: As growing connectivity and new regulatory frameworks make health information increasingly available to people everywhere, patients will become more empowered to navigate the healthcare system and take their health in their own hands. Gone will be the days of ‘medical paternalism’, when patients are relatively uninformed about their health risks, conditions, choices and costs. Through online communities, personal health records, connected devices, low-cost genetic sequencing programmes and a growing variety of other sources, patients will become ‘true consumers’ of health products, compelling providers and payers to be more patient-centric in their business practices.
Southeast Asia perspective: Healthcare consumer empowerment and engagement will increase in Southeast Asia too, but at a slower pace in the region’s developing markets, where medical paternalism remains strong. Patients there often view the words of their doctors or pharmacists as gospel, even as they recognise corruption and conflicts of interest that run rampant in healthcare systems. As incomes and education levels continue to rise and national healthcare programmes continue to bolster access, this situation may change, but gradually.
Telemedicine takes off and remote care becomes common
Global prediction: As connected devices proliferate, it will become increasingly rare for patients to travel or wait for healthcare – they will enjoy online and remote healthcare services for consultation, diagnoses, monitoring and even treatments. Hospitals will begin to focus on complex or emergency care, while community-based clinics and providers will assume a greater share of overall treatment work.
Southeast Asia perspective: In Southeast Asia’s emerging markets, infrastructure gaps remain a major impediment to telemedicine, but as connectivity improves, many new telemedicine services are getting funding and traction. These services may prove to be a boon in the fight against treatable infectious diseases like tuberculosis and the expansion of health access to rural populations. However, questions linger as to what extent telemedicine can adequately compensate for ongoing health worker shortages, which remain a major challenge in the region.
Wearables, biosensors and mHealth become central to healthcare
Global prediction: The variety, quality, interoperability and affordability of wearable health tracking devices, biosensors and related mHealth applications will improve in the coming years. This will foster widespread adoption for both active treatment and passive health tracking, with a growing number of wearables being prescribed as part of reimbursable treatment plans. As a byproduct, these devices will generate huge quantities of data that will be useful in clinical trials and other studies.
Southeast Asia perspective: These technologies will likely catch on in Singapore first. As an example of the new tools and services that are already being adopted there, Deloitte’s report mentions Silverline, a Singapore-based company that offers a suite of home monitoring systems, smartphone apps and analytics tools geared towards older adults. Beyond basic fitness trackers, however, uptake of more advanced wearables and biosensors has been less apparent in Southeast Asia’s emerging markets.
The power of Big Data in healthcare finally realised
Global prediction: New regulatory regimes, industry partnerships and business models will arise in the coming years to leverage the long dormant potential of Big Data for global health. This will enable more streamlined development and deployment of treatments, and perhaps even outcomes-based pricing for those treatments. Since the potential is so great, health data policy will become a national priority for governments and a competitive differentiator between countries.
Southeast Asia perspective: In the developed world, the biggest challenge will be creating protocols for access and sharing of the vast quantities of data that already exist, but in Southeast Asia’s emerging markets, much of that data will need to be created in the first place. Hospital information systems, electronic medical records and other tools for managing health data are still just beginning to get deployed in places like Indonesia and the Philippines, but their inevitable adoption will create new opportunities for data analytics. Meanwhile, startups like mClinica (where I currently serve as Director for Vietnam) are providing novel solutions for gathering data in fragmented healthcare markets.
Regulators finally catch up to all these changes
Global prediction: Many in the healthcare industry complain that regulatory frameworks and institutions put a chokehold on innovation, but this will change as government agencies become increasingly technocratic, data-driven and cooperative in their policies. New regulatory frameworks will recognise the diminishing barriers between drugs, devices and data. They will enable faster iteration and greater patient involvement in clinical trials and healthcare research.
Southeast Asia perspective: Southeast Asia still has a long way to go with regard to regulatory reform and harmonisation, though ASEAN-led initiatives may play a role in bolstering regional cooperation in the coming years. The ASEAN Consultative Committee on Standards and Quality has specific working groups for pharmaceuticals (PPWG), medical devices (MDPWG) and traditional medicine (TMHSPWG). Yet in a region beset by weak institutions, top-level policies and practices on the ground are likely to remain inconsistent for the foreseeable future.
I came across Deloitte’s healthcare predictions at the FT Asia Pharma-Healthcare Summit, a May 2015 healthcare conference in Singapore. The conference was attended by high-level executives at leading pharmaceutical, device and health services companies. Curiously, health-tech played a relatively minor role in the agenda. Amidst lengthy panel discussions of demographic and economic trends, talk of health-tech was minimal.
In the closing remarks, the organisers indicated that they may hold another Asia-focussed healthcare conference next year. Here’s my prediction: If they do, health-tech will become a more central part of the discussion.
The author Will Greene is the Director of New Markets for mClinica, a health tech company that provides data and analytics services for the healthcare industry. This article originally appeared on TigerMine Insights, Greene’s blog on tech, policy and development trends in Southeast Asia.
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