Oliver Spalding
Jun 9, 2014

What's next for Asia’s quiet healthcare revolution?

The three key factors driving a revolution in the way healthcare is delivered and perceived—and what it all means for marketers.

Oliver Spalding
Oliver Spalding

Asia Pacific is home to over half of the world’s population and hosts a diversity of cultures, languages, infrastructures, political models and healthcare systems.

An urban Singaporean may appear to have little in common with a rural family in Vietnam when it comes to health matters, but the incredible rate at which Asia’s already highly mobile population embraces all things digital is slowly but surely bridging fundamental gaps.

Healthcare has long been seen as at best a tedious process, at worst a terrifying one: a time- and cost-consuming journey to a crowded waiting room before a short consultation with a white-clad HCP (healthcare practitioner), often a stranger. But things are changing, and digital and connected technologies are literally revolutionising the way healthcare is perceived, experienced and delivered.

Digital health technology is big news in 2014, yet we must also acknowledge that technology change can only take us so far.

Indeed, healthcare transformation is equal parts technology and culture shift, but what is the right formula? Let’s try to find out by exploring three key drivers of change.

1. The internet of things

The internet of things is everywhere, literally. From health applications to wearable technologies, digital healthcare is increasingly using the internet to enable, share and record our behaviour. The list of devices is dizzying.

With the boom of often fun and user-friendly health and lifestyle apps, coupled with the explosion of ‘wearables’, people are routinely monitoring their health and body in an unprecedented way, gathering large amount of data that can be of tremendous use to doctors, HCPs and even marketing professionals.

Healthcare has a unique opportunity to tap into this potential all along the journey from information and consultation to prevention, diagnosis and cure.

Most HCPs in the region struggle to provide fundamental healthcare, navigate bureaucracy and infrastructure. They are not as digitally literate as their patients, so we need to help get them on an even footing—an intuitively designed and mobile-friendly website for starters.

HCPs are ready to make the leap; 85 per cent of physicians in China go online to look for and keep up-to-date with medical news and 69 per cent to research new pharmaceutical products (Manhattan Research). Healthcare firms are adopting BYOD (‘bring your own device’) and so mobile must surely be key tool for HCPs to connect not only with patients, but also the expertise found in advanced tier one cities. 

2. Quantified self

Quantified self means knowledge of oneself based on numerical data. All connected devices and services mentioned already are based on processing complex data to predict likely outcomes. According to research by Vandrico Inc, 70 per cent of all apps and gadgets worldwide relate to health and lifestyle. The brilliance of these tools is their ability to build habits by cleverly packaging data.

More data on people’s health does not (always) translate into more useful data for HCPs. HCPs need new tools and analytical skills to be able to use that data in a timely and efficient manner, combining the qualitative insight of healthcare with patient’s online behavioural.

The Economist found that in Asia Pacific organisations are lagging Europe and the US in utilising big data, particularly in health, pharmaceutical and biotech sectors. Although most managers in the sector said they had made only limited or no progress, data is still is a major driver.

And all this data needs to go somewhere first. Secure cloud data storage can disrupt inertia; a more agile model can improve access to data at point-of-care and connect provider with professional. According to Frost & Sullivan, about $200 million was spent on healthcare cloud solutions in APAC in 2012, with a further 23 per cent growth forecast over the next five years.

Just as apps help consumers by cleverly packaging data, it benefits HCPs and providers too by utilising visual dashboards to present electronic health and medical records augmented with data captured remotely from monitoring patients, or their own apps. That in turn can drive much better targeted communications.

3. Health communities

Online communities in the region are unlocking dialogue about health in a setting where people are less predisposed to expressing their private matters. They need professional, reliable advice, something that is more often than not absent from these forums. HCPs and professionals have so far failed to keep up with the pace health conversations are developing online.

Whilst this phenomenon has increased empowerment, healthcare always has an undercurrent of fear for the average person. Turning to the internet for answers to your health questions can in some cases be helpful, but the plethora of information available can also lead you to think that the new bruise you spotted on your arm is actually the sign of an advanced stage of skin cancer. The risk of miscommunication and obsessing on worst-case scenarios is very real, despite being statistically improbable. Compareclinic.com was set-up for Singaporeans and Hong Kong people with just that in mind. It also uses other social platforms like Pinterest and Slideshare to distribute practical advice. People are eager to find reliable information when it comes to such a private and important matter as health, and someone needs to fill the information gap in a rational, reliable way. Today, HCPs still often discourage their patients from looking health issues up on the internet, but it needn’t always be the case in the future.

Much needs to be done to build a responsible voice for an industry that is often shaken by scandals of all sorts, and just as in other markets, pharmaceuticals brands are under the spotlight in Asia Pacific, particularly so in China, South Korea and Malaysia. Whilst this points to a much bigger legislative issue, some small steps can be taken in improving transparency and building trust online.

Spending more time listening, researching and identifying influencers is one. Forums and communities are places where informational content can be distributed. Infographics, for instance, are a simple means to communicate key information across multiple languages or where education levels are inconsistent. Knowledge centres and live messaging platforms can be built to create a safe environment for discussion, one that must not be about selling products but about promoting wellness and empowering individuals.

Prescription for success

Connected devices are profoundly changing the way healthcare is delivered. Culturally, this new digital health ecosystem has a unique chance to make a significant difference in the long-run by:

  • Helping HCPs become more digitally literate and get basic online platforms in place
  • Improving storage, accessibility and visualisation of data to help HCPs and consumers alike
  • Addressing the underlying fear-factor in healthcare; building a trust-based relationship through online content, communities and forums.

Healthcare companies have a huge role to play in this. Following recent health scandals and accusations of corruption in the region, the time is right to change the mode of communication and allocation of marketing resources to build trust upfront of increasing regulation. The revolution is only just starting.

Oliver Spalding is head of strategy for Greater China and Southeast Asia at DigitasLBi

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