Analysts have noted the rise of telehealth as part of a general ‘COVID-19 inspired’ acceleration of digital adoption in Asia-Pacific countries.
Telehealth, which is the digitisation of healthcare services, was already on an upward trend before the pandemic, according to Bain’s 2019 Asia-Pacific Front Line of Healthcare survey.
Almost 50% of patients said they expect to use digital health tools in the next five years, while 91% of consumers said they would use digital health services if the costs were covered by an employer or insurance provider.
However, the online delivery of medical care services, such as patient awareness and education and health information services via telecommunications and digital communication technologies, has put a massive strain on many countries’ healthcare systems inundated by the pandemic.
This results in reduced resources to treat other diseases and illnesses (such as Malaysia’s HIV Programs).
In an interview with Disruptive.Asia, Lena Soh Ng, PROI APAC Healthcare co-chair, PROI Worldwide, a group comprising 80 partners with 7,300 employees in more than 50 countries, outlined a broad picture of current challenges and solutions in what has been noted as a substantial market.
Impact in APAC
On a global level, she cites findings that estimate that the global telehealth market will reach US$19.5 billion by 2025.
Closer to home, digital health platforms in APAC markets are also reporting a surge of activity, she said, outlining various examples, which are summarised below:
- DoctorOnCall became involved in supporting COVID-19 testing procedures. Industry players believe that telehealth will continue to find more ways of expanding and improving, including specialist channel provisioning such as telepharmacy.
- Taiwan’s government has this year permitted telehealth usage for remote areas. The National Health Insurance Division’s objective is to improve the operating model, and expand the range of benefits, allowing local departments to identify remote medical centres to define appropriate treatment and prescription.
- Indonesia has also seen rapid growth in the use of telehealth in the pandemic. Many companies provide holistic telemedicine via smartphone apps for Indonesian families. There has been a growth in the number of affiliations between local e-medicine platforms, like HaloDoc and Gojek (an on-demand multi-service platform and digital payment technology), and Good Doctor with Grab.
- In Thailand, one of the world’s leading medical facilities, Bumrungrad, has introduced an international consulting service for patients in response to limitations placed on its core business of medical tourism hospitality.
Hurdles to growth
“As with any disruptive innovations and technologies, challenges are part and parcel of the journey,” Lena said. “With telehealth, we see specific challenges in regulatory compliance, data protection, and adapting to this fast-changing world.”
“As current regulation has not yet been reorientated enough to protect the health-tech ecosystem – largely a result of massive changes arising from Covid-19, which forced a need to adapt almost overnight – there is increasing focus on the importance of communication aspects.”
She believes that in the light of this, global players, new/ entrants and even current existing players in the industry will need the strategic support of experienced partners in navigating the complexity of these issues, which include addressing Information security and personal privacy concerns. “These all call for solid insights on how to effectively reach potential customers.”
“In Europe, the distribution of patient data across digital services that are seeking greater interconnection and access has already raised alarm bells,” she continued.
“Disputes that increase as a result of the rising prominence of telehealth services equate a risk gap. At this stage, the infrastructure needs of hospitals – including system integration/data migration and information security – are very strong. “
In APAC, Australia, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) holds that telehealth services should only be accessible to patients through their regular General Practitioner (GP). The theory is that the GP will be aware of the patient’s history and better able to offer face-to-face consultations when needed, instead of through pop-up telehealth services.
Between March and June 2020 alone, Australia recorded 14 million telehealth visits. Visits are reimbursed by Medicare, their national health insurance system, which compensates only for telehealth visits with a patient’s GP and not pop-up or on-demand ones.
“There is an increasing need to be able to support patients with chronic diseases; for example, the demand for mental health treatment suggests there is considerable potential in telehealth,” Lena said.
“However, operators must be able to deliver while responding to newly shifting regulatory frameworks,” she points out. “And this is doubly complicated for international care providers responding to local implications whilst adapting to the potential of newly integrated digital platforms.”
Connecting the dots
Lena said that the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) quotes a research report by Global Market Insights, which noted that the market of digital health technologies, including health IT, wearables, health sensors and any solutions aiming to digitise healthcare, is projected to surpass USD 379 billion by 2024.
Telemedicine is also fast emerging from this healthcare technology advantage and has the potential to ease ‘overloading’ hospitals.
MIDA further noted that physicians could expand their reach by deploying advanced telemedicine solutions to remotely examine and diagnose more patients in a shorter period, potentially minimising the number of patients entering hospitals and medical facilities. In Indonesia, telehealth firms such as Alodokter and Halodoc are doing just that to reduce pressure on a healthcare sector inundated by record numbers of Covid-19 cases.
Lena commented that: “Apart from meeting growing demand for telehealth services, there is massive competition, so providers need to be able to conduct advocacy activities to get buy-in from relevant stakeholders and achieve strong benefit communication.”
She said that strategic communication has an important role in connecting the dots to enable a more seamless understanding of telehealth’s potential role.
Speaking from her PROI role, Lena noted that PR firms could help telehealth adoption by increasing visibility and positive awareness, building and maintaining the excellent reputation of the provider, introducing campaigns and responding to macro happenings, which prompt public concern and a desire for change.
“Beyond simply growing publicity about telehealth, organisations need help to better connect with their communities,” Lena concluded. “As the demand for telehealth increases, so will the need for specialist partners in tandem. When healthcare systems are able to cope with COVID-19 as a new normal, then differentiating yourself out in the competitive healthcare landscape and building a trusted brand reputation will become an even more critical key.”