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Article: The rise of digital health across Asia and the implications for pharma

Pei Li Teh, May 2021

Digital health in Asia shutterstock_1824097700Globally, COVID has accelerated the adoption and further development of digital health, especially in APAC where studies found an increased openness to digital health innovations, mainly guided by consumers’ needs. They seek these technologies to address immediate concerns as well as persistent problems of access and unequal standards of healthcare access. In particular, this is prevalent across APAC and China where the number of new users on a range of telemedicine platforms has risen dramatically compared with December 2019.[1] Pharma companies must continue to be aware of the increased use and acceptance of these technological innovations and keep up with digital transformation trends.

HealthTech in Asia Graph-01

What is Digital Health?
Digital health technologies use computing platforms, connectivity, software, and sensors for health care and related uses. These technologies span a wide range of uses, from applications in general wellness to applications of medical devices.[2] Numerous terms such as ‘eHealth’, ‘mHealth’ or ‘telemedicine’ are frequently used as synonyms of Digital Health to describe concepts of healthcare practice that use or involve information and communication technology.[3]

It is important to note that these innovations are not necessarily disruptive. Often, they are unlocking faster and more effective medical intervention for healthcare providers, complementing clinical practices and improving healthcare outcomes. Recent innovations include Singapore’s Breathonix’s breathalyser-type diagnostic test kit that detects COVID-19 in under a minute.[4]

Implications for pharma and keeping up with digital health
The growth of digital health is driven mostly by market pull and not initiated by the pharmaceutical industry. To successfully develop and keep pace, pharmaceutical companies have to change the way they view digital health today, in terms of both the opportunities it presents and the potential risks. The opportunities are limitless and they include:

Potential for collaboration to create patient-centered digital health innovations
As the importance of patients and consumers is set to increase, the traditional business model of the pharmaceutical industry is expected to change. Across Asia, incumbent players are looking to utilize innovations through partnerships and licensing deals to bring these solutions to market more quickly in collaboration with government, regulators and public healthcare institutions. For example, Singapore’s Health Promotion Board and Apple’s LumiHealth programme employs behavioural insights from the Apple Watch to encourage user adoption of healthier lifestyles over a longer period of time.[5]

Activating new business segments via digital health and improving patient outcomes
Digital health elements could potentially become an integrated part of product offerings. For instance, Halodoc, a telemedicine platform which offers an online delivery service for drugs, is now also helping patients book COVID-19 tests and hospital appointments.[6] From a therapeutics perspective, the increased use of telehealth could substantially improve access to needed treatments and compliance. Essentially, telehealth’s ability to reduce barriers to HCP-patient interaction could increase opportunities for patients to gain greater awareness of available therapies.

Digital health transformations are becoming more popular, however, pharma companies still need to do their research around this increasing trend. There are still several issues in the industry that need to be recognized including; challenges in the adoption of digital technology and platforms by HCPs, support and funding for new business models, development of secure interoperable technology platforms, and the evolving consumer landscape in healthcare.

What should pharma companies therefore consider when embarking on the digital health journey?

Understand the consumer and patient needs
Although HCPs’ comfort and ease with telehealth has increased with the pandemic, many remain wary of virtual care and the potential for adding to their already weighty technological and administrative burdens. Virtual care can also be limited by how articulate a patient can be. For example, the ageing population has a higher risk of complications compared with younger patients as they are generally less tech-savvy, so companies need to be careful with how they communicate digitally so that these platforms are accessible and useful for all ages.

Provide sustainable and continued support to integrate tools and platforms
HCPs need ongoing support and digital training not only to seamlessly integrate new tools into their practice but to recognize and ease digital fatigue in the process. Keeping to telehealth as an example, video consults appear straightforward however they demand different clinical and communication skills to be effective. HCPs need to be able to identify emotions from patients’ words and tone as well as their facial expressions.

The importance of data management and limitations of digital health
Digital health initiatives also need to address ethical and medico-legal issues in regards to accurate diagnosis and financial viability (among others). Most telemedicine guidelines, apart from in Thailand, contain some element of informed consent before commencing with telemedicine. Under the Singapore Medical Council's 2016 ethical code and guidelines, doctors must ensure patients "understand any limitations of telemedicine that may affect the quality of their care".[7] This can be a challenge if, like the ageing population, patients are generally less tech-savvy. Lack of clarity on how the platforms are regulated has created a demand for platforms to be forthcoming in addressing these issues and place strict data management systems as a priority.

Growing digital health is coming at a time when innovations are delivering holistic and meaningful outcomes, as well as greater convenience for patients and healthcare systems across Asia. The increase in digital transformations means that pharma will need to be more innovative and dynamic than ever to learn and shape the environment to cope with the accelerated speed that comes alongside digital health solutions.

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