By Will Greene
Millions of Southeast Asians today lack access to affordable, quality healthcare. As connected devices become increasingly ubiquitous in the region, however, many companies and NGOs are developing innovative eHealth apps to address the problem.
Southeast Asia's healthcare systems today face an acute shortage of funding. Total public and private healthcare spending accounted for only 3.9% of Southeast Asia's GDP in 2012--lower than any other region in the world. While the average American and European drops thousands of dollars on healthcare each year, per capita spending in most Southeast Asian countries averages less than $250 annually.
Low spending deters much-needed investment in new hospitals, equipment, and the information technologies that power modern healthcare systems management. It also contributes to the region's shortage of skilled healthcare professionals. A few of its more developed areas have sufficient numbers of doctors, nurses, and midwives. But large swaths of the region fail to meet the World Health Organization's most basic healthcare workforce standards.
These problems are especially acute in poorer countries and rural areas. While healthcare hubs like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok offer world-class service that makes them medical tourism magnets, public hospitals in Vietnam, for example, cannot sufficiently address local needs. In the region's more remote areas, treatable infectious diseases like malaria and dengue continue to needlessly claim lives in the absence of the most basic healthcare services.
Improving Southeast Asia's healthcare systems will require billions of dollars in new infrastructure, but putting all that money to work will take time that millions don't have. As more people gain access to connected devices, however, entrepreneurs, companies, and organizations across the region see potential to speed improvements to healthcare delivery with new web and mobile applications.
Virtual clinics and pharmacies
Some of these apps transform connected devices into portals for clinical care, allowing patients to communicate virtually with clinicians and receive health advice. These "telehealth" or "eVisit" apps can streamline or even automate the consultation process, saving time and costs for everyone.
Telehealth services, though gaining popularity in North America, generally face challenges in developing countries, where bandwidth constraints, low smartphone penetration, lack of experience with digital services, and other factors inhibit their adoption. Even so, several telehealth services now operate in Southeast Asia. Some focus on local markets, like Dokita and Dokter Gratis in Indonesia, while others see potential across the whole region.
"Southeast Asia has all the right ingredients for telehealth to go mainstream," says Justin Fulcher, CEO of Ring.MD, a Singapore-based telehealth startup that recently received fresh funding to grow its regional footprint. "High-speed networks are increasingly getting deployed and many governments have policies in place to support telehealth adoption."
While companies like Ring.MD want to improve access to doctors, others seek to improve access to pharmaceuticals. One example is mClinica, a mobile platform that connects drug makers with pharmacies and physicians.
"Pharmaceuticals in most developing countries get distributed through fragmented networks of independent drug stores," says Farouk Meralli, mClinica's Founder and CEO. "This makes it difficult for pharmaceutical companies to access markets efficiently, raising costs and limiting access for millions."
Founded in Silicon Valley, mClinica recently established operations in the Philippines, seeing exceptional opportunity there. It now has its sights on Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Apps for public health NGOs
A growing number of public health NGOs and development agencies also use eHealth apps to support their work in Southeast Asia. InSTEDD, an American nonprofit that makes open-source software for the development sector, wants to help even more of them harness the power of digital technologies.
Based in Silicon Valley, InSTEDD is a global organization with a strong presence in Southeast Asia. From its office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it offers a range of software platforms and tools that support development campaigns across the region. Tharum Bun, InSTEDD's communications lead for Southeast Asia, says the group is especially active in healthcare.
In addition to developing software, InSTEDD organizes community events, including Epihack, a series of hackathons dedicated to fighting infectious diseases in remote and under-resourced Southeast Asian areas. These events bring together stakeholders from across the healthcare ecosystem to prototype solutions for collecting, tracking, and sharing data on emerging disease pandemics.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also hosts events to support eHealth innovation. Earlier this year, its annual Mobile Solutions Forum in Bangkok featured a competition to identify high-potential ICT4D (ICT for Development) programs in the region. Several finalists were healthcare projects.
One such finalist was CommCare, an online open-source platform that supports field workers in a range of sectors, including healthcare. Created by Dimagi, a social enterprise based in Boston and with offices around the world, CommCare facilitates data collection, patient case management, and workforce mobilization. The platform has been deployed in more than 40 countries, including Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, and Myanmar.
Another USAID finalist was The Fansipan Challenge, an application that uses games to promote HIV prevention and care in Vietnam. Designed by FHI360, a group that co-organized the competition with USAID, this app incentivizes drug users, sex workers, and other at-risk populations to get tested, enroll for treatment, and encourage peers to do the same. Participants accrue points that can eventually be converted into prizes.
More innovative apps on their way
Many more eHealth apps are being deployed in Southeast Asia, including in areas like biotech, hospital information systems, and medical education. I plan to to continue writing about this topic in coming months, so if you are an innovator or expert in this arena, please contact me and tell me what you're doing.
Will Greene writes about digital trends and development in Southeast Asia. He researched this article with support from BDG Asia, an advisory firm that helps international companies do business in Southeast Asia. He is based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
To read about how U.S. doctors are using a new web platform to discover information about preferred treatments, click here.