It goes without saying that the pandemic has changed the health ecosystem significantly across the globe. Countries have witnessed widespread adoption and integration of care systems, the most prominent among these being digital health. Though born out of necessity, digital health has become integral to health management.
With the goal of delivering exceptional care, the benefits of improved efficiency and outcomes were observed by early adopters with others taking notice subsequently. This digital transformation within the health segment is helping Asian countries address the gap in the availability of specialist doctors while reducing the burden on tertiary-care hospitals, particularly in rural areas.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to about 60% of the world’s population (4.3 billion people), which includes the world’s most populous countries, China and India. There has been a remarkable economic transformation in the region over the past few decades, which has resulted in better living standards and closer integration with the world economy.
This region has four of the world’s 12 largest economies – Japan, China, India, and South Korea, whose transition from a developing to a developed country has happened at an exceptional pace. However, this transition has led to increasing healthcare costs as a result of population growth, demographic shifts, and technological developments and has also posed policy challenges, including the need to protect and promote public health.
Re-imagining health with digital solutions
The re-invention, re-imagination, and transformation of the health sector across the world were enabled by expanding technological capabilities and innovation, most notably digital and mobile technologies. This fostered tremendous innovation and modernization resulting in digital solutions such as telemedicine, real-time tracking and monitoring, and artificial intelligence (AI). They helped governments, health organisations, and other stakeholders in combating the pandemic and strengthening public health while staying prepared for the future. The new discipline of digital medicine, which applies software and hardware to the field of evidence-based tools that measure, diagnose, and/or intervene to support the practice of medicine, holds promise for improved patient care, cost-effectiveness, and transparency.
Digital health technologies have also made healthcare accessible to last-mile beneficiaries and have empowered patients to make more informed choices about their care delivery. Now, wearable devices and mobile applications are helping patients keep track of their own condition while allowing doctors to monitor patients remotely, with a keen eye on compliance. It is also assisting health workers with case-based surveillance, remote consultations, and information dissemination and has opened up new avenues for the medtech sector as well.
Asia-Pacific powers digital health
The digital health market in Asia is expected to rise from $37 billion in 2020 to $100 billion by 2025. Consumer-centric digital health value pools are expected to increase by 22% yearly through 2025. Moreover, over 70% of the value will be driven by the digitization of care delivery.
This is because of the rapidly aging population, rising living standards, increasing consumer expectations, limited health infrastructure, and a need for more skilled medical professionals. This has brought Asia to the cusp of a health revolution. Moreover, substantial growth in disease burden, especially chronic conditions, will require additional focus on transforming the care delivery system. Chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, respiratory distress, and cancers are responsible for 75% of deaths in the Asia-Pacific region.
Digital solutions have also helped governments put in place track-and-trace systems, often via mobile applications. For example, in South Korea, information on contact tracing was shared with the public through apps. In India, mass vaccination drives were conducted with the help of information collected from a mobile app.
Addressing emerging challenges
The adoption of digital health presents a mixed bag of opportunities and challenges. Many Asian countries are struggling with a relatively underdeveloped health infrastructure. This has created a significant gap in demand and supply. Further, the absence of clear regulatory guidelines may lead to fraudulent practices.
The need for more skilled healthcare professionals to cater to the population is also a challenge. Therefore, upskilling professionals is a huge requirement, as demand for digital skills across industries is expected to surge by around 20 times by 2024. The lack of proper skilling infrastructure, which is expensive and hardly available in rural areas, further creates a roadblock.
Moreover, an estimated 1.6 billion people in the Asia-Pacific region lack adequate access to social health protection. This often puts a huge financial burden on families making healthcare further inaccessible to most of the population.
How policymakers can drive change
Public and private payers have begun leveraging digital technologies to encourage consumers to monitor their health, eventually lowering the long-term cost of care. More and more hospitals are looking to establish digital ‘front doors’ to engage with patients before and after their visit. For instance, China had established 1,000 internet hospitals by 2021 that provided detailed guidelines and various medical information to patients and doctors. Further, Singapore, South Korea, and Australia are generally considered the region’s top three role models for digital health due to their respective governments’ progressive approaches.
In India, the government’s introduction of the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) and National Digital Health Blueprint (NDHB) has been instrumental in strengthening the accessibility and equity of health services. Increased health start-up funding is also helping entrepreneurs work on innovative solutions. By 2023, the health sector is expected to reach $5 billion at a CAGR of 39%.
In the Asia-Pacific region, ensuring consistency and predictability in regulatory review processes will encourage innovation throughout clinical research and development. Policymakers are under extreme pressure to implement changes as there are simple solutions to the problems. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it clear that there is a need to re-imagine and restructure traditional health systems, which must involve digital solutions. Therefore, policymakers need to come together and encourage the adoption of innovative technology to meet the region’s growing demands.