One of the potential innovation test grounds for Southeast Asia’s technology companies is likely to be the healthcare industry. With adoption of telehealth solutions is at an all-time peak due to the pandemic, tech giants and fast-moving startups are accelerating innovation and disruption in the industry. This has never been seen before with healthcare being traditionally deemed as being slow-moving, so there is no frame of reference available. So, while the future of healthtech remains bright, there is also uncertainty and steep challenges that remain to be overcome. 

The growing appetite for healthtech across Southeast Asia

While telemedicine is not new and has existed long before the pandemic outbreak, it was the lockdown measures that drove mass-trialling of digital health services, including telemedicine, and increased the speed of innovation in the industry. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the telehealth market in Southeast Asia soared to a value of USD194.5 billion, expected to grow at a CAGR of 17.6% from 2021 to 2028. In our combined markets, Good Doctor Technology reached a total user base of more than 13 million users in the last 2 years across over 100 cities in Indonesia and 80 districts in Bangkok. This highlights the New Health Economy and the need to continue bringing new capabilities to maximise the efficiency of healthcare in the region. 

Leveraging on this momentum, startups and legacy healthcare providers are working together to push for greater innovation to serve the immediate and long standing health needs of the region. With a recent establishment of a regional HQ in Singapore, Good Doctor Technology aims to spur the growth of healthtech through R&D and increasing headcount by 50% over the next 3 years and attract passionate talents with cross-industry experiences beyond healthcare and technology sectors. By growing regional resources, Good Doctor Technology aims to re-imagine the future of healthcare in SEA by championing digital-first approaches to address underlying accessibility gaps in primary healthcare services which still exist across the region.

However, the telehealth boom didn’t happen overnight. The market growth can be attributed to the industry’s commitment to innovation and the growing needs and demands of patients. Southeast Asia, in particular, has been faced with its own set of challenges – ones that Good Doctor Technology also had to overcome in order to achieve  our mission in the region.

Lack of education and awareness about telemedicine

When the lockdowns first started to curb the virus, there was a distinct lack of general public education about telemedicine as a go-to health solution. Whether it’s due to patients choosing to stick to their primary care physician, some of which had not switched to virtual care yet, or a general lack of awareness or trust, this led to a huge disconnect in the beginning. Furthermore, healthcare tends to be a more sensitive topic when compared to other verticals of digital services, such as ecommerce or finance. Health literacy remains one of the largest critical factors in driving the adoption of medical services, namely telemedicine. In the region, we noticed that this was a recurring issue in many areas, especially rural or ageing populations. To speed up the adoption of digital health services, patients need to first know about its existence, benefits and channels. 

To drive the adoption of telehealth in Indonesia, Good Doctor Technology implemented programmes like disease awareness health talks and specialised events during the pandemic to drive public awareness. This was to normalise the use of technology and educate consumers about the benefits of digital health solutions. Especially during the peak of the COVID-19 waves, our medical teams used our official Instagram account to distribute credible health information about the COVID-19 variants as a way of curbing the spread of fake health news which was circulating in the country. Through a series of IG lives, IG reels and IF feeds which saw an average of 5 thousand interactions, we successfully tapped on our social media channels to reach the younger generation of Indonesians and increase the accessibility of trustworthy health facts. 

Apart from end user education initiatives, we are also supporting knowledge sharing initiatives among business owners and corporate key decision makers. As we seek to digitise healthcare across Southeast Asia (SEA) through direct to consumer and business to business models, our teams are also unlocking new ways to engage HR leaders, business owners and other healthcare ecosystem players by spearheading webinars to discuss new ways telemedicine services can support with organisational health management. In Thailand, our B2B-first approach to penetrating the market has allowed us to champion digital transformation topics to drive further education across industries to encourage the adoption of smart healthcare management tools to enhance the productivity levels of their employees. 

Accessibility to quality healthcare

Lack of infrastructure or properly distributed resources, especially for communities that lived outside of the major cities, limits the public’s access to quality healthcare. In Indonesia, there are approximately 0.38 physicians per 1,000 population, which is one of the lowest ratios globally. In Thailand, the numbers are slightly better, with 0.9 doctors per 1,000 people, but the distribution of these resources disportionately favours larger and more developed cities. When access is limited, healthcare turns into a privilege, which goes against the belief that healthcare should be a fundamental right. Overcoming this challenge means that healthcare providers had to democratise healthcare by providing access even to those who did not have it beforehand. This could be difficult, given the standards and regulations of large healthcare networks and an established ecosystem. By working closely with industry leaders across the healthcare ecosystem, it was possible to increase the accessibility of quality healthcare services to people in Indonesia through collaborations with existing super-apps for initial market entry, such as GDT’s initial launch of its GrabHealth powered by Good Doctor service available on the Grab Indonesia app, to achieve rapid scalability. In Thailand, we have also recently integrated our telemedicine services into a newly launched health and wellness super-app developed by one of Thailand’s most established banks, SCB DBank (Digital Banking, Siam Commercial Bank). Called “Spring Up”, our telemedicine functionality gives users access to our online medical consultation service with an unlimited chat system. This initiative reiterates our mission to continue supporting the overall advancement in Thailand health tech market and respond to the growing demands of more advanced digital health tools by consumers. The integration of everyday apps and telemedicine services greatly reduces users’ barriers, as users can access healthcare through an app they likely already have and are familiar with. Today, Good Doctor’s services can also be accessed by the public through the standalone Good Doctor app which was launched in Indonesia in May 2021 and subsequently in June 2021 in Thailand. 

Regulatory standards for telemedicine across SEA remains unclear 

The diversity in telemedicine practice across countries calls for uniformity in guidelines and standards. To ensure the longevity and success of the New Health Economy, players in this space need to scale and push for innovation. However, this can be restricted when the pathway to the future is unclear. In the new normal, the regulations, standards and practices of new widespread industries like telemedicine are still unclear. Indeed, the potential for bureaucracy to hinder growth is likely to come when there is less urgency to access digital services. For healthcare and other evolving industries, there is a necessary step to take in ensuring the quality of service and effectiveness.

Going forward, it’s crucial for players like us to work with regulators and local health authorities to support the creation of sustainable outcomes through long-term regulations and systems. This is a critical step in ensuring the viability of these digital solutions and pushing for the adoption of telemedicine beyond the pandemic need. 

Even as we approach the endemic, digital health services have not slowed down. Rather, they’re continuing to earn their spot as having a positive and significant impact on the quality of healthcare and driving proactive health management. Thus, it’s important for key industry players, from providers to governments, to work together in order to grow quickly and in the most effective manner possible.

This article was contributed by Melvin Vu, Regional CEO of Good Doctor Technology

About the author

Melvin Vu is CEO Good Doctor Technology. He is responsible for leading the company to become the largest online healthcare platform in Southeast Asia. Before moving to GDT, Melvin assumed different roles in Grab, Southeast Asia’s largest Super App. From Head of GrabTaxi Singapore, where he launched the now ubiquitous JustGrab service to Head of Markets for GrabExpress where he launched instant delivery services in Singapore and scaled Grab’s logistics business in Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand.

In his various capacities, Melvin has focused on the foundation of “Growth” – growing businesses, industries, relationships, companies and people.

Prior to joining Grab, Melvin was the Director of Communications and Development of SG Enable, an agency dedicated to enabling persons with disabilities and building an inclusive society. Melvin joined SG Enable from SATS-Creuers Cruise Services (SCCS) where he served as CEO. Under his leadership, the Marina Bay Cruise Centre Singapore was operationalized in May 2012. Prior to his appointment in SCCS, Melvin was Program Director, Special Projects at SATS Group. He has also held various leadership positions in Carlson Wagonlit Travel, National Heritage Board, Singapore Cruise Centre and Singapore
Tourism Board.

Melvin graduated from the Nanyang Technological University with a Bachelor of Business
Studies (Hons), majoring in Tourism and Hospitality.