The COVID-19 pandemic is a defining moment in our times, and its global disruptions will inspire innovation across industries as we enter a post-COVID-19 world.
We are curious about the impact the pandemic would have on the global healthcare sector and the consequent impact on the Southeast Asian ecosystem. This article will examine the role digitalization has played in the healthcare space, specifically in relation to information sources, digital health experiences, and the role of data in a public health crisis.
We now have access to a range of digital information sources where we may hear about major global developments, especially in the COVID-19 crisis. However, this profusion of news sources creates the risk of misinformation, especially in a public health context.
At the same time, we see a marked increase in digital health adoption, given that COVID-19 makes physical consultations difficult. This opens up new opportunities and challenges, including preparing clinicians to be effective online care providers.
Finally, the fight against COVID-19 would not be possible without digital tools and timely data sharing. Moving forward, the successful management of such a crisis would require data collection by the government, which would need to be explained clearly. Creating an atmosphere of trust where data can be volunteered and shared safely is a challenge for all health authorities.
Grappling with health information sources
One of the most prominent ways we all experience the shift due to the digitalization in healthcare is in the way we receive public health information. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, people relied on official channels of communication, such as broadcast media and newspapers. In contrast, consumers now have access to a variety of information sources that can provide near real-time developments of the pandemic.
An ongoing study by the National Centre of Infectious Diseases (NCID) on the Singapore population’s knowledge, risk perception and behavior during the COVID-19 outbreak revealed that social media has been cited as the preferred source of information on the outbreak for the public. About 78% of respondents who recirculated news about COVID-19 did so on messaging platforms, while 35% shared the information on social media and about 42% did so by word-of-mouth.
The wide plethora of news sources, especially user-generated sources like social media, increase the risk of misinformation, which, in a public health context, can cause real physical harm. The new challenge for healthcare authorities and the public is the need to verify and fact-check information.
To combat the threat of misinformation, the Singapore government has taken the initiative to use new channels to publish authoritative information on COVID-19. More than 90% of the respondents in the aforementioned NCID study trusted information from official government sources. This corroborates the idea that the perceived credibility of health authorities is instrumental in keeping citizens reliably informed even amidst a profusion of information sources.
The increased access to digital sources of information is also accompanied by an increase in the adoption of online health platforms, where patients can engage with clinicians remotely.
Towards a more personalized healthcare experience
With COVID-19 halting physical consultations, the point of care for most consumers has shifted to the digital realm. Digital health tools are enabling physicians to treat patients from safe distances while providing new efficiencies to the healthcare system.
According to Bain Telemedicine, digital health platforms in Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia have gained a surge of activity due to various stay-home measures. These digital health tools have increased the capacity of the healthcare system while keeping the clinician-patient interaction safe.
Startups such as MyDoc and Doctor Anywhere have registered a 150% average increase in their respective user bases in 2020. Ping An Good Doctor announced in March that its healthcare venture with ride-hailing firm Grab plans to hire hundreds of doctors in Indonesia given that the GrabHealth platform conducts 10,000 consultations daily compared to 5,000-6,000 per day prior to the outbreak.
A surge in the adoption of digital health tools is not a surprise in these times, but it is clear that they need to be made a mainstream fixture of healthcare services to be prepared for the future. According to Oliver Wyman, enhancing the quality of services provided to consumers, and designing more personalized experiences for them are key to making sure that digital health is here to stay.
Speaking at Healthcare Innovation in Times of COVID-19—a webinar hosted by Catalyst—Dr. Tan Min Han, CEO of Lucence Diagnostics, noted that there are opportunities in the need for developing skill-sets for clinicians to be certified for consultations and telemedicine procedures.
When we consider users who are not necessarily early adopters of digital technologies, but might nevertheless need to access digital health services, the question of credibility becomes key. There is a need for digital health service providers to work closely with regulatory bodies to enhance the qualification systems used to assure users of the credibility of such platforms.
Apart from the growth of telemedicine, there is a growing trend around leveraging technologies available in most smartphones to empower consumers with digital health functions such as stethoscopes, blood pressure monitors, and eye tests. This would enhance the abilities of clinicians to provide more robust remote consultations to consumers.
Looking to the future, we see opportunities for digital health tools to use IoT-enabled tools to integrate a patients’ medical history and lifestyle into their service delivery, to enhance their medical efficacy. Point-of-care test kits with a suite of capabilities might become the norm for households, with developments such as 19Labs GALE QKit which is a suite of take-home sensors that facilitate telehealth lifestyle monitoring by a medical professional. The ability to share data with clinicians across digital channels helps provide better care and build a more robust digital health ecosystem.
The challenge of data collection and sharing
The pandemic has put a spotlight on the role of surveillance within the realm of public health, raising difficult questions about the trade-off between the citizens’ right to privacy and the need to keep track of people for the sake of public health.
Many countries have quickly implemented various forms of geo-tracking to pinpoint and alert communities about infection clusters. Prof Henry Ho, director of the MedTech Office Singhealth, highlighted that the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak and the pace of its transmission is unique, and that data and digital tools are essential for healthcare authorities to manage it.
Various governing organizations are attempting to navigate these privacy concerns while providing data access to healthcare providers. One example is the Trusted Data Sharing Framework by Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). This framework aims to address these concerns by offering common data-sharing principles to help organizations develop baseline practices.
IMDA has stated that “the intent of the framework is that, with stronger safeguards and clarity on regulatory compliance, consumers will be more ready to share their data and consequently benefit from more personalized goods and services.”
Data is instrumental in the fight against a pandemic and while authorities strive to make responsible use of it, privacy concerns still make this a delicate balancing act.
Having introduced new constraints in our lives, COVID-19 has created the conditions that warrant accelerated online health innovation across the world, and as such may inspire never-before-seen progress in the digital health space.
We believe we will see digital health grow tremendously in the near future, not only in the realm of consultation advisory models, but also will play an important role in supporting multiple dimensions of our social health: through more personalized monitoring of patient lifestyles, and in our communities.
Having that been said, we need to take a balanced view of both the opportunities and the challenges that come with digital healthcare innovation. We require continued emphasis on quality, efficacy, and credibility.
As we work toward expanding the scope and reach of digital health platforms, it is important to consider people who do not have access to the internet or to digital technologies. How might we innovate to enable them to access the healthcare they need, and ensure that no one is left behind?
We at Padang & Co support UN SDG 3 – Good Health & Well-being and are committed to supporting a growing community of health and medtech startup ecosystem in Singapore through our specialist innovation space, Catalyst. We hope to continue to share with you our views on innovation in the digital health space.
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Disclaimer: This article was written by Qing Ping Lee Lim, Program Manager at Padang & Co. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here.