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Disrupting Healthcare in Southeast Asia

Takeaways from an online forum co-hosted by J&J Impact Ventures and Tech In Asia
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Nilesh Wadhawa (top left), J&J Innovation moderates a conversation with Gervin Yang (bottom center), Openspace Ventures, and May Lo (top right), ABC Impact, about healthcare innovation in Southeast Asia.

Home to more than half of the world’s population and driven by shifting demographics, rising expectations, advancing technologies, Asia is primed for rapid healthcare changes. While there has been limited legacy health infrastructure, the past two years have witnessed an acceleration in innovation within healthtech, medtech, digital technologies, and healthcare management practices, as the industry tried to adapt to the challenges posed by the pandemic and to address needs of the hour.

To better understand how the industry was disrupted and where we are heading, I had the pleasure and honor to moderate an online discussion with Gervin Yang, Executive Director, Openspace Ventures, and May Lo, Director, ABC Impact, who shared some interesting and thought-provoking insights with an audience of tech startup founders, healthcare professionals, and investors.

Together, we explored topics that included: 1) Issues the healthcare industry faced during the peak of the pandemic and what these could mean for 2022 and beyond, 2) Major trends in healthcare in Southeast Asia, 3) Investment opportunities, and 4) Framework or metrics used to measure the impact of healthcare startups. Below are my main takeaways after our highly engaging 45-minute conversation. Watch a recording of the entire discussion below.

Disrupting healthcare in Southeast Asia
Disrupting healthcare in Southeast Asia

Takeaway 1: The biggest disruption to healthcare came from a change in people’s mindset and change management being a key factor moving forward

While we saw an increased adoption rate of healthcare tech during the pandemic, many of the technologies, such as telemedicine and remote health monitoring, were not considered as new. What was considered new though, was how the mindset of various stakeholders changed: not only patients, but also healthcare providers became more open-minded and embraced these technologies as enablers to deliver/receive timely and efficient care. Whether this change came about out of necessity or it happened because of a natural progression of time does not matter that much to May. Instead, she argued that this shift in the mindset is actually a more important disruption than any new technology and such mindset change needs to continue to happen.

As technologies continue to advance and mindsets continue to evolve, Gervin stressed that change management should become a top priority for the healthcare tech industry. While we can reasonably expect technology to help improve patient outcomes and efficiency, it can only happen when it is accepted by many. “A lot of patience and re-training will be needed to help people understand how [technologies] can help,” said Gervin. “The need to understand [doctors’ and patients’ concerns] and help with the transition are what the tech industry should focus on.”

Takeaway 2: Acceptance and adoption of digital tools will continue to grow across Asia

Both Gervin and May agreed that technology will have a huge role to play in healthcare going forward, in areas like delivering care, plugging the supply chain gap, and controlling costs.

While the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in the supply and demand dynamics of healthcare institutions, the bright side, according to Gervin, is the acceptance and adoption of digital tools to augment the gap in supply and demand by many players and stakeholders in the industry. “We have seen it in many companies in our portfolio and among their customers,” he said.

May added that digital health is still in quite an early stage of development in Southeast Asia and there is much room to grow. “You see a lot of telemedicine and most people are focusing more on the [care] delivery space, but really there can be many more business models that we can explore like supply chain and logistics,” she said.

Takeaway 3: Technology can help improve healthcare access

Shortages of health workers and inequitable access to healthcare exist in much of the world, especially in developing countries. In addition, a consistent problem is the unequal distribution of clinical talents, who tend to be concentrated in urban areas. May believes that technology can certainly be an important driver to enhance access.

“If you increase the adoption rate of telemedicine, you can potentially increase access to healthcare in a lot of the more remote places,” she said. “When we talk about [technology], we always think about the direct delivery of healthcare; but there are other things that could be considered, for instance the sharing of knowhow, and using technology to support some of the care providers who are around patients [and who may not be medically trained].”

Takeaway 4: Scalability is a key determinant for investment

When it comes to looking for healthcare startups to invest in, both Gervin and May emphasized the importance of the scalability of the product or technology.

To Gervin, technology that can help scale up an existing business model is particularly attractive. “We love companies that want to tackle chronic [health] conditions with very high prevalence rates and they have a differentiated technology angle that will really help hospital systems scale up their programs in dealing with these chronic conditions,” he said. Why? Because healthcare solutions that are long established and have produced good patient outcomes are hard to replace overnight.

“When we think about technology, what we’re looking for are smart people who manage to digitize these established pathways and enable hospital systems to scale up the number of patients they treat in a year,” he added.

Looking at scalability from a different angle, May is focused on how easily a technology or product can be adapted for use in different geographies, especially for a region like Southeast Asia where individual countries are very different.

“Being able to reach large populations within our investment timeframe is very important. If the business model requires more customization across jurisdictions, they will require more time,” she said.

To summarize, according to our panelists, the rising need for quality and affordable healthcare in Southeast Asia has been a critical factor influencing the rapid growth of healthtech startups in the region. With emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and blockchain driving this change, entrepreneurs and C-suite executives need to understand the challenges associated with the advent of these tools and carefully think through their strategies/business models to cater to various needs along the care pathway.

Likewise, investors need be open-minded and be ready to identify and back untapped opportunities presented by an emerging slew of entrepreneurs/companies.

Afterall the whole industry is pivoted towards providing customers and patients easy access to personalized healthcare experiences and thereby improving the health outcomes.

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