By Dr. Helmut Schuehsler, CEO & Chairman

Southeast Asia stands to gain from adapting digital health solutions to elderly patient care systems, mainly due to the region’s large, aging population and the resulting strain that is placed on the current healthcare structure. The rapidly aging population is caused by falling birth rates and rising lifespans. In Thailand, one in four people is expected to be a senior citizen by 2030, while in Singapore, 32 percent of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2035. This trajectory indicates that the disease burden is likely to continue shifting to non-communicable diseases such as dementia and diabetes, which require costly long-term treatment and care.

Most governments across the region are underprepared for the pressure this will place on health systems, and this presents an opportunity for healthcare providers that are able to use digital health –   including AI – applications to deliver care to elderly patients in the comfort of their own home. Patients in many parts of the world are using wearable robotic devices for round-the-clock care and companionship, enabling healthcare providers to transfer aspects of care into the patient’s home. This is reducing the strain on overutilized and less cost-effective hospitals and is making care more accessible, efficient, and reliable. Wearable robotic devices use machine learning and deep learning to track patients’ health remotely, deliver tips, and remind them to take their medicines. Some devices are capable of alerting emergency services, if a patient experiences a hard fall.

This technology however is far away from being adopted on a mass scale. While China and the US lead in global AI deployment, Singapore is currently catching up and only moderate progress has been made in Vietnam and Malaysia. Other ASEAN countries are still building the foundational digital infrastructure and data ecosystems needed to realize the opportunity. ASEAN nations spend less than half the amount on public health as a percentage of GDP when compared to the rest of the world, providing an opportunity for international healthcare providers to fill the gaps and introduce AI-based service models into the region.

Overcoming the challenges

Increasing adoption of technology, the rise of remote care, and a growing number of smart living services available to the mass market are among several developing trends transforming aging care. These developments and others provide a clear opportunity to improve the convenience and clinical outcomes of senior home living. Achieving this will require direct communication from health organizations and care systems with seniors and their caregivers, to design targeted offerings that are easy to use for any age group and investigate alternative value and payment models. Payment models have to be developed and should incentivize models of care that keep patients out of the hospital as long as possible. At the same time, we should not assume that the job is done, just because a remote care solution is in place. Ideally, such a system would mark a shift towards more interaction between communities and their elderly.

From the perspective of the user, one of the largest barriers to digital health and AI adoption is trust – especially when it comes to sensitive healthcare data. Healthcare service providers need to be transparent, informing patients what data is stored and how it is used. Elderly patients who are able to access the technology, like older generations across the world, will face age-related physical and psychological barriers to adoption such as deteriorating dexterity, visual impairment, or simply a lack of confidence. Personalizing the technology can help to overcome these barriers as long as product designers’ factor in the complexity of ageing throughout the design process. For example, adaptive learning algorithms could play a role in delivering virtual education that is customized to each patient. Voice-user interfaces and speech recognition technology could help elderly patients to feel more familiar with technology and more receptive to the change in care delivery. Early studies indicate that speech recognition technology can actually help diagnose changes in neurological or mental health status. New socially assistive robots (SAR) are being adapted to perform tasks comparable to human care workers. They could soon become partners for social interaction, and early tests show that they are able to lower blood pressure, reduce loneliness, and improve general well-being.

Building bridges, innovate and share health solutions

Digital care has formed a central component in the expansion plans for one of our portfolio companies, Manzil Healthcare Services, into Singapore. Manzil is a homecare provider that we grew from a small team to now more than 600 employees in the GCC countries and Egypt.

The company has developed and is already using a digital platform to connect elderly patients with their caregivers, doctors and their families. Subscribers receive educational materials, assistance with day-to-day living and their respective medical condition – without leaving the comfort of their own home. As part of Manzil’s digital services, video consultations and remote monitoring have helped to increase patient autonomy, reducing dependency on healthcare personnel.

Introducing Manzil’s digital care model into Southeast Asia is a bold strategic decision, but a move we are doing using our global perspective and the knowledge of unmet healthcare needs in certain regions of the world. We’re grateful to hold a privileged position that combines 35 years of global healthcare investment experience with 10 years of specialty healthcare financing experience in emerging markets.

In a country like Singapore, we have found that government infrastructure welcomes digital care models. The Singapore government agency IHiS (Integrated Health Information Systems) is building a nationwide enterprise analytics platform that aggregates and analyses patient data from multiple health-care systems and generates insights to improve outcomes. Government Initiatives like this make me feel confident that, as digital infrastructure and AI technologies become more developed, we will also be able to work out payment structures and reimbursement plans with all members of the healthcare eco-system, and deliver value-added, patient-centric digital health solutions for the elderly, to increase their quality of life at every turn of their lives.