Asia 2020: 5 Things to Watch Out for in the Healthcare Sector 2020 will be about bringing health care to everyone in an easily accessible way, using tech to solve problems, and the year medical marijuana finally jumps off the diving board in Asia
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Healthcare has already come a long way in Asia. Regarded as one of the most populous continents in the world, the healthcare infrastructure has taken a big leap from the days of hours-long waiting periods to see a medical practitioner, and traveling to European countries for expert medical care. Education, innovation and technology have all spurred the modernization of healthcare systems in Asia, as has the region's rapidly aging population.
The Asian healthcare industry is expected to grow by almost $200 billion by 2020, to $2.66 trillion, according to an Economic Times report, driven by improved access to healthcare facilities, increased government and private investments, and government initiatives that promote medical insurance.
Governments across the world are waking up to the fact that sick people cost a lot on the whole, and are looking at ways to prioritise prevention over treatment. In many Asian countries, health-care startups and innovations are given special incentives from government agencies in the form of grants, R&D funding, and aids to encourage them to make public health more efficient.
And to a large extent, healthtech players in Asia have been able to make processes and systems more efficient, cost-effective and widely available for consumers. Emerging tech like 3D printing, AI, and blockchain have afforded startups of today opportunities that previous generations did not have, although traditional and well-established healthcare companies are jumping onto the health-tech bandwagon too.
Entrepreneur Asia Pacific looks at 5 trends in the Asia healthcare space that could define 2020, and even change the face of healthcare in the region.
Wear Your Health
The healthcare wearable market in Asia raked in nearly $7.30 billion in 2019, according to a report by Statista, and is expected to continue to grow at an annual rate of 4.1 per cent, to $8.91 billion by 2024.
Wearables today are not just limited to athletes and sportsmen, thanks to smartwatches. Fitness-savvy millennials have been a big driving force for wearable sales today, as are hospitals and medical centers that have been adopting new tech to bring down their diagnostic costs and bring in more patients.
Home blood glucose testing kits, blood-pressure monitors, smart shoes that measure gait, headbands that measure stress and light bulbs that help one sleep better, among others, are some examples of wearable devices, and more is yet to come.
App-based consultations have taken off in a big way in Asia, especially Southeast Asia. While they are only recommended for primary consultations with doctors, apps that connect patients with doctors over the phone are helping solve problems such overcrowded medical centres, negligence of potentially fatal illnesses, delay in medication dispensation, and most importantly long patient wait times, which could result in loss of pay for daily wage earners.
Patients in Southeast Asia typically have to wait for three hours to receive three minutes of care, a Monk's Hill Ventures report said, adding for five of ASEAN's most populous countries, there are an average of 0.8 doctors per 1,000 people, lower than the global average of 1.5 doctors per 1,000, and far behind Singapore's 2.3 doctors per 1,000 people.
Added to that, healthcare costs in Southeast Asia are higher than in most other parts of the world - out of pocket costs account for 44 per cent of current health expenditure, versus the global average of 19 per cent.
Dial-a-doc services are the perfect solution for all problems with regards to primary health care. "As technical advances continue and network connectivity issues become less and less, in 2020 we'll see more healthcare clinicians get on board with telehealth technology and start to offer video visits as part of their standard services," Dr Silvia Pfeiffer, CEO of Coviu, an Australian health company, said.
"This is absolutely critical in not only helping to bridge the healthcare gap between rural vs metro areas, but also in giving busy professionals, or those with mobility issues, the opportunity to access quality healthcare services, as and when they need it," she added.
Some companies, such as Vietnam's Jio Health, for example, are even going a step further and helping patients book hospital beds in times of need, delivering medication to patients' doorsteps, collecting blood samples for diagnostic tests, and even arranging for transportation to a from a medical centre, if needed.
China's largest online healthcare app, Ping An Good Doctor has tied up with Singapore's Grab to bring its health services to Southeast Asia. The company has also been exploring the use of AI and chatbots to route patients queries and consult doctors.
Marijuana on the Back-burner No More
Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, has been known for taking a hard line on marijuana in any form in the past, but with a growing body of research that points to the benefits cannabidiol, or CBD, offers, many have had to reconsider medical marijuana as a useful, safe treatment for various disorders.
Thailand legalised medical marijuana in February this year, while South Korea did it in November 2018. China, Japan and Singapore have been researching medical applications for cannabis as well, and investors widely expect that more Asian countries will decriminalise the plant by next year.
When Canada legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use in 2018, Canadian cannabis companies raked in millions of dollars from domestic and foreign investors alike. Asia could replicate that success too, if more regions legalised medical marijuana, and more and more startups doing interesting things in the CBD space could become an investor favorite in 2020.
Give it up for the Grey Gang
By 2050, more than a quarter – or 1.3 billion – of the population in Asia Pacific will be considered elderly, which is 60 years and older, a study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific found.
Asia has the largest ageing population in the world, led by Japan, where there is one person over the age of 65, for every two people between the ages of 20 and 64, according to a report by the World Economic Forum. Long-term health care is thus an important part of the broader health sector in Asia.
Healthcare for "silvers' is not unheard of. Retirement homes, round- the-clock homecare nurses, traveling physiotherapists and routine checkups as part of health insurance policies are some of the ways elder care has been managed till now, and legacy companies have put in resources to come up with ways to make it more efficient.
Ageing is not a new phenomenon in Asia either, and neither are companies that service the segment. But, with the help of tech, startups have been able to refine this space to a large extent.
Platforms that offer cheap long-term care (LTC) because of automation and tech-dependence have been able to penetrate the elder-care space, especially after premiums for LTC went up recently.
Research funding to find cures for chronic ailments like diabetes, arthritis, and blood pressure, that make LTC even more expensive, has increased, as has gene therapy which combats illnesses via targeted treatments.
More and more startups are also getting into preventative monitoring for ailments characteristic of old age, such as memory loss diseases, low mobility, loss of bone density, among others, so that people could start taking steps in advance to prevent, or at least delay their onset.
All things AI Could Do. And Blockchain is Here Too!
Artificial intelligence is not just a buzzword that startups use to draw attention - it has far-reaching implications in the healthcare space when it comes to analyst large data sets, such as health records, genetic profiles, diagnostic values, clinical trial results etc.
AI can also use patterns and trends that emerge from the data to draw conclusions at a much faster rate than researchers can, even suggesting the next course of action, at times.
Pharma companies all over the world are deploying AI and using machine learning to shorten drug development timelines, analyse data from clinical trials faster and more efficiently, as well as using superior computing powers to discover new products in silico.
Blockchain was another technology that exploded in 2019. In the context of healthcare services, blockchain is being used to store patient information, diagnostic test results, and hundreds of such unalterable data points that healthcare providers can access securely.
Governments in Asia Pacific are increasingly throwing their weight behind the development of blockchain by tweaking policies and incentivising companies that develop the tech for other applications, such as financial services, and charity tracking.