By Hoda Abou-Jamra, Founding Partner and Head of SEA Operations (first published in a company publication where the firm has brought together top-line views of our Southeast Asia experts to paint a vision of the healthcare sector’s future, and some of the changes that the global Covid-19 pandemic will bring.)

Covid-19 is likely to accelerate a trend towards a patient-centric model of care, and away from hospital-centric models, which have until now dominated the healthcare landscape in Southeast Asia. The experience of the pandemic has made patients across the world reluctant to enter a hospital if it is not absolutely necessary, which is very often the case. For example, a UK hospital bed audit conducted in 2015 found that 50 % of bed days could theoretically take place in other settings.

Covid-19 has shown that freeing up hospital beds, and ICU places in particular, is vital.  When it comes to around-the-clock intensive monitoring and treatment, the priority must be given to patients who are severely ill or medically unstable and have a potentially life-threatening disease or disorder.

Treating patients that do not require this type of care in a hospital is also costly for healthcare systems across Southeast Asia, and would be more effectively carried out in ambulatory and specialist centers, which are likely to take a larger share of complex care and procedures in the coming years. The move away from hospitals will also extend to ancillary functions such as imaging and lab tests, and this separation is being fueled by demand for more capacity for diagnostic testing in response to Covid-19. Such services will require input of clinical information, which will be increasingly collected through remote facilities, such as pharmacies, imaging centers and pathology labs. Demand for more accessible, high quality care will drive growth in specialist healthcare providers across Southeast Asia. There is high potential for expansion of clinics that focus, for example, on pediatrics, obstetrics, and gynecology, or respond to the growing need for high quality post-acute care for chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cancer.

Home care fits well with region’s traditions

Healthcare providers will also increasingly move care into patients’ homes. This complements Southeast Asia’s traditional approach of caring for the sick and elderly in a family environment and in familiar surroundings.  Furthermore, in countries where home care has taken off, it has proven popular among elderly patients that are unable to travel to hospitals on their own, particularly when many working-age adults are absent due to work commitments.

Home care is a convenient, safe option that perpetuates resilient, self-reliant communities. It also protects patients against additional risks such as hospital-acquired infections and hospital-induced stress. But in order for the model to work, non-hospital healthcare providers need to further meet patient needs. This means more specialized training, knowledge sharing amongst staff to provide easy access to ideas and diagnostics, regular patient monitoring, and resources on standby if patients’ needs escalate rapidly.

Digital solutions in healthcare will accelerate transformation

Adoption of digital and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions will facilitate the move to specialist and home care provision, and the experience of video during the Covid-19 pandemic has already spurred greater adoption of remote consultations.

The logistics of healthcare provision in the 10-country ASEAN region, which counts a population of over 600 million dispersed over a large geography, makes digital healthcare applications linked to access to healthcare and therapies as well as monitoring, highly attractive.

Public and private healthcare providers across Southeast Asia have started to deploy digital technologies, and the region has an opportunity to leapfrog the developed world’s traditional healthcare systems.  We view digital solutions in the areas of access, diagnostics, monitoring, workflow, and process management, as well as supply chain management as key areas of building future-ready and resilient healthcare companies. Every healthcare company, regardless of vertical, must have a digital strategy with regards to the above-mentioned fields of applications, to be able to succeed.

Digital tools to facilitate remote communication between providers and patients are already starting to take root in the region’s top hospitals, and will continued to be developed and improved, together with home-based monitoring devices.  Technological adoption in the region in the coming years will include AI-based diagnostics, cloud-based storage of medical records, and integration of information across the care continuum.  Wearable robotic devices have been developed, which use machine learning and deep learning to track patients’ health remotely, deliver tips, and remind them to take their medicines.

This technology however is far away from being adopted on a mass scale. While China and the US lead in global AI deployment, some Southeast Asian countries are building the foundational digital infrastructure and data ecosystems needed to realize the opportunity.