A complex surgery is being performed, but the lead surgeon is not in the operating theatre. In fact, he’s not even in the same city, let alone the same building, yet he is still able to play his part, directing the other surgeons as he supervises the procedure using a two-way video link. In another hospital, an elderly man is wheeled in with a serious complication. As he is unconscious and not a regular patient at the institution, the doctor is unable to determine if he has any preexisting conditions. That is until she finds his medical card, which – after a quick scan – reveals his entire medical history, enabling her to give him the proper treatment.
These two scenarios may be hypothetical but the services involved – namely telemedicine and electronic healthcare information systems – are very real indeed. They, along with other procedures and services, make up what is known as digital medicine or digital healthcare, where ICT is used to assist in healthcare management including diagnosis, triaging, treatment and aftercare.
No doubt the advancement of ICT has helped. For example, although internet video conferencing has been available for more than a decade, telemedicine (particularly telesurgery) requires seamless, real-time interaction, which has only been possible with the recent development of ultra-high-speed internet connectivity.
Another innovation that promises to further digital healthcare is the internet of things (IoT), where internet connectivity is enabled in non-traditional ICT devices. For instance, IoT can be used to enable a pacemaker to automatically send readings of a patient’s heart rhythms to the doctor. That way, medical professionals can monitor the progress of the patient remotely while the patient does not have to go in for a check-up as often as before.
In a nutshell, digital healthcare is a very promising prospect, from a medical, commercial and economic point of view. According to Goldman Sachs, it can help save US$305b (RM1382.7b) in the United States, including US$200b (RM893.8b) on monitoring and managing chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as hypertension and diabetes. Also, just as a stitch in time saves nine, remote real-time monitoring ensures that possible complications are addressed quicker, thus reducing costs that would have come from treating the illness.
Opportunities in Malaysia
Although Goldman Sachs’ study was centred on the United States, digital healthcare has the potential to be as effective and important in other parts of the world. Southeast Asia is a region where it would be of great utility, because public healthcare costs have been growing as increasing affluence over the last decade added to rising cases of NCDs.
Malaysia has been particularly affected. In mid-September, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said that the prevalence of diabetes mellitus in the country is about 17%. The vast majority of these cases are Type 2 or non-insulin dependent, which is caused by poor lifestyle habits such as smoking and lack of exercise.
Just as they help reduce costs by monitoring and managing patients with chronic illnesses, including NCDs, in the United States, digital healthcare services can do the same in Malaysia. In fact, a Frost & Sullivan report indicates that between 2012 and 2017, the market for remote patient monitoring (RPM) equipment in the country is expected to enjoy a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.6%.
One company that aims to contribute to this is Cisco Systems (Malaysia). The local subsidiary of the world’s largest manufacturer of networking equipment, its country manager Albert Chai stated to Digital News Asia in early 2014 that he sees great potential for smart healthcare in Malaysia, which he deemed to be “pretty much underpenetrated.”
Although it might be seen as the preserve of the urban sector, digital healthcare can also help extend medical services to rural parts of the country, where there may be telecommunications lines – hence internet access – but only limited physical healthcare facilities.
As highlighted by the aforementioned Frost & Sullivan report, one example of this in action was a 2013 collaboration between health technology firm Embedded Wireless Labs and mobile telco Maxis, where the former’s Zilant Wellness Platform is used to support the latter’s Connected Village CSR programme.
Under this project, inhabitants of remote and rural parts of Malaysia with chronic illnesses are given check-ups such as blood glucose and blood pressure tests using Embedded Wireless Labs’ network-connected medical devices. Their readings are then sent to care providers as well as stored on the cloud.
Another utiliser of digital healthcare in Malaysia is KPJ Healthcare, which is the country’s largest private medical group. Its KPJ Clinical Information System (KCIS) connects its more than 20 hospitals in Malaysia, thus
enabling medical professionals to share patients’ medical records including procedures and pharmacological records within the group. This results in more effective patient treatment as important information is readily and easily accessible.
There are some challenges, and the biggest one digital healthcare faces in Malaysia is the ICT infrastructure in the country. Although connectivity here is decent enough to handle remote patient monitoring and electronic medical data storage and retrieval, more complex services such as tele-surgery may not be possible until the system is made up to speed.
Other obstacles to further adoption of ICT in healthcare are the lack of funds, resistance from healthcare personnel and the lack of skilled talents in this cross-discipline. One thing is for sure though, Malaysians have already started to embrace digital healthcare, and these hurdles should not serve as serious barriers to further take-up. Call it digital healthcare, smart healthcare, or digital medicine – it is an area that should interest savvy investors.