Disruption comes to healthcare services

More than 15 years after people around the world started using e-mail and text messaging to communicate with family, friends and clients, healthcare services finally are being transformed by digital and mobile technology.

Interestingly, a lot of the innovation is occurring in emerging markets and not just in the United States, Europe and Japan, where in the past two decades hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in healthcare information technology systems that may soon be obsolete.

Start-up technology players and more established healthcare providers in countries like China, Singapore, Indonesia and India are responding to these developments and investing in digital services and mobile apps at a rapid pace.

Venture capital firms and other investors have seen a significant increase in capital provided to start-up companies in the field. Large insurance companies and even local governments have begun supporting this trend, given the lower costs of services that are being provided digitally and using patients' mobile phones.

However, an overwhelming number of hospitals, doctor's offices and even health insurance firms have not yet begun to adapt.

One reason is that the global healthcare industry is significantly larger than many other industrial sectors. It behaves more like a giant supertanker: it takes a lot of time and energy to turn it around. In the US, for example, US$1.7 trillion (S$2.3 trillion) is spent on healthcare annually, and there are more than 784,000 healthcare companies (including hospitals, clinics and doctor's offices).

It is also a different type of industry. People need its services to stay alive. Most people do not have a choice about whether to "consume" healthcare services. They need to go see a doctor or they need to have surgery at a hospital.

Also, competition is severely limited because most individuals seek healthcare near where they live and there often are not that many choices.

Things are changing, however. The cost of digital technology has continued to drop significantly and much can now be achieved without spending millions of dollars on expensive and complicated information systems. Both the speed and reliability of telecommunications and mobile phone networks have continued to improve, while the cost to access such networks has decreased.

Even five years ago it did not seem realistic for a patient to schedule a video conference with a physician using his or her smartphone, just so that the physician could take a close look at his or her post-surgical scar.

These days, it is reality in some areas.

Today, expert healthcare can literally be at your fingertips, as demonstrated by innovative companies such as RingMD. The company enables anyone with its smartphone app to connect with a doctor, a mental health expert or a wellness practitioner through a video or phone consultation. The Singapore-based start-up company now offers services in more than 30 countries.

Dokter Gratis, based in Indonesia, provides a similar service.

These are just two examples among literally hundreds in the region. There are popular consumer health portals with large amounts of valuable health information such as Alodokter (Indonesia-based) and Singapore's DocDoc, which also provides a useful physician appointment booking service.

There are health e-commerce platforms such as Indonesia's ApotikAntar and ProSehat, which have become true online marketplaces to access prescription drugs as well as over-the-counter medicines and vitamin or health supplements, in partnership with local, authorised pharmacies.

Medical practice and clinic management solution providers such as Singapore's Klinify have made it easier to manage patients' medical records electronically and make them portable across different platforms.

Medical data aggregation platforms such as MyDoc (also based in Singapore) have successfully partnered with insurers, governments, corporations and healthcare providers to streamline their operations and provide enhanced services.

IMPROVING PRODUCTIVITY

A population without access to quality healthcare is less productive than one with access.

In India and the Asia-Pacific region, there are many areas that do not even have postal codes.

And there are many areas that do not have quality healthcare services available to the population. This represents a serious challenge to government leaders and policymakers from New Delhi and Jakarta to Manila and Beijing.

Leaving aside the personal, human toll on many families, a population without access to quality healthcare is less productive than one with access. It impacts every single sector of the economy, from agriculture and the timber trade to industrial production and retail shopkeepers.

If we can incorporate the many advances in medical technology into the patient-physician experience, it will result in healthier outcomes.

If an employee does not have to miss a day of work to sit in traffic and wait for hours to see a doctor, this has economic benefits and makes companies more productive. If millions of employees are healthier and do not have to miss a day of work, it benefits an entire economy.


  • Michael Marquardt, former co-founder and chief executive of the health services company MediGuide, is a global business adviser.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2017, with the headline 'Disruption comes to healthcare services'. Print Edition | Subscribe