Covid-19 a Shot in the Arm for Telemedicine
Examining the record growth of two telemedicine platforms in Southeast Asia – DOC2US (Malaysia) and Ooca (Thailand) — on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, telemedicine was utilised in countries with a low ratio of healthcare professionals to patients, with scattered populations, and/or with rural populations located far away from city centres.
Telemedicine helps healthcare practitioners (HCPs) monitor the basic health status of patients, monitor and manage existing conditions, prescribe medication, as well as provide specific services such as nutrition and mental health counselling, without meeting them face to face.
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare institutions began dedicating much of their resources to battling the disease, leaving fewer resources for the management and treatment of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, chronic lung disease and cancer, which are collectively responsible for almost 70% of all deaths worldwide.
As governments began imposing social-distancing measures to combat Covid-19, healthcare institutions and providers turned to telemedicine to enable patients to continue receiving their medications and health services in a timely manner; all without putting their HCPs and patients at risk of contracting the virus, even in countries where populations enjoy easy access to healthcare facilities, such as Singapore.
The Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) for example, has introduced several safety measures to reduce the number of patients visiting the hospital in the wake of Covid-19.
“In addition to screening of travel history, temperature checks, limiting the number of visitors and/or patients and safe distancing measures, our online pharmacy facilities enable patients to renew prescriptions and have medications delivered to their homes. We also provide telemedicine or video consultation for patients whose conditions are stable, so they need not travel to the centre for a consultation,” says Prof. Gemmy Cheung, Head & Senior Consultant of SNEC’s Medical Retina Department.
Launched in 2017, Malaysian telemedicine provider DOC2US experienced a remarkable 160% growth in 2020. DOC2US has more than 150,000 end-users currently, with an average of 700 to 1000 new users joining the platform daily.
More than 230,000 e-prescriptions (electronic prescriptions) were generated by its panel of doctors in 2020 alone, compared to about 90,000 e-prescriptions in 2019. Currently the platform has more than 500 authorised pharmacy outlets, and aims to raise that number to 1,000 by the end of the year.
One of the app’s key features is the ePharmacy service, which enables patients to receive their prescribed medication at their homes in just two hours if they reside within the Klang Valley, and same-day delivery services to other major cities such as Penang, Seremban, Melaka, Johor Bahru, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.
According to the CEO of DOC2US, Dr Raymond Choy: “As the first and only telemedicine provider in Malaysia in compliance with the Ministry of Health’s guidelines in providing digitally signed e-prescription services, we have set the benchmark when it comes to e-prescribing and e-dispensing. Our smart pharmacy solution, Electronic Prescribing System (EPS), offers a seamless and efficient digital dispensing solution that enables pharmacists to connect and communicate with doctors online in a structured and secure manner.”
During the pandemic, DOC2US has expanded its offerings to include providing Virtual Health Advisory (VHA) services which allow the public to consult the Covid-19 Task Force through their platform 24/7 and for free, on Covid-19 related matters. It has been integrated with the national contact tracing app, MySejahtera, reducing the number of public enquiries for the Ministry of Health and public healthcare facilities to respond to. Recently DOC2US has partnered with the Malaysian government in setting up and running one of the mega Covid-19 vaccination centres under the National Immunisation Programme with the capacity for administering 8,000 to 10,000 doses of vaccines daily.
“The pandemic has certainly catalysed and sped up the adoption of telemedicine among the larger health institutions such as government hospitals, which typically take a longer time to adopt new systems than healthcare facilities in the private sector, for example. Improvements that used to take years to approve and implement have been carried out in just weeks,” adds Dr Choy.
Meanwhile in Thailand, Doctor Raksa, the country’s number one telemedicine app, and Ooca, its top tele-mental health platform, have both seen accelerated growth since the outbreak.
Launched in 2017, Ooca is the first app of its kind in Southeast Asia with over 100 psychiatrists and psychologists currently on board.
In a country that witnesses nearly 10,000 suicides each year – more than any other ASEAN country – mental health is a huge concern. However, Thailand has only about 1,000 psychologists to almost 70 million people, with most psychologists based in big cities such as Bangkok. Ooca bridges this chasm by helping any Thai with a camera phone access mental health professionals from anywhere in the country, without having to travel to the capital.
Like much of the world, the pandemic has also increased the incidence of mental health issues among Thais. In a Bangkok Post article, it was reported that stress levels among the general public increased from 2.7% to 4.2% due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Another UNICEF-led survey released in April found that the Covid-19 pandemic was causing stress, worry and anxiety for more than seven in 10 children and young people in Thailand.
“Users on Ooca can either pick their own professional to connect with, or be matched by the site. As all sessions are anonymous, the patient does not expose him- or herself to public stigma associated with mental health,” says CEO and Founder of Ooca, Kanpassorn Suriyasangpetch or Khun Eix as she is also known.
Ooca has registered more than 72,000 users to date. Apart from individuals and businesses in Thailand, the app is now available to Thais living abroad who are unable to return home due to the pandemic.
A new norm
There is no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digitalisation in healthcare in the Asia-Pacific. According to a survey by Bain & Company nearly half of its 1,823 respondents see digital health services such as telemedicine becoming a permanent go-to option in the next five years.
While Singapore remains an attractive location for health tech startups due to its strong legal framework and government support, developing countries such as Indonesia offer immense potential for telemedicine because of its huge rural population base.
The growing demand for telemedicine is likely to spur governments to make more investments in this area, which in turn would better enable more people in the region to gain access to healthcare services in a consistent and timely manner.