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Vol 22, No. 10, October 2018   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
Delivering on the promise of digital health
The role of patient-level digital interventions in improving patient outcomes across the Asia Pacific region.
by Rowena Yeo

Our lives have become more digitalised: from computers to smart phones to wearables, we are constantly “plugged in”. Technology is making our lives easier, enhancing our experiences when we are interacting with a product or an organisation and allowing us to do things that previous generations only dreamed of.

To date in healthcare, digital solutions have so far focused more on processes, data services and the systemic level – like e-health records for example. However, we are increasingly seeing the introduction of patient-level interventions to simplify healthcare delivery and improve health outcomes. Health apps, wearables, telemedicine or online information services are designed to help patients, carers and healthcare professionals with prevention, diagnosis, monitoring and disease management. The data that they produce in turn inform the development of more sophisticated interventions that will transform the way we deliver healthcare.

Healthcare technology in US and Europe

In the US and Europe, digital health tools have made significant inroads across a range of therapeutic areas and healthcare services, specifically when it comes to chronic conditions. For example, Finland’s Beat2phone live streams data to a smartphone from a wearable chest-strap to help identify asymptomatic atrial fibrillation and enable instant feedback to patients, relatives and health care providers. In the US, health tech company, Omada Health provides a 16-week online behavioural-counselling program to manage obesity-related chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. As a result, it has received full recognition by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as Medicare funding. These are just a few examples of the great promise that technology offers for patients.

Digital health becoming a reality in Asia

While digital health in Asia is driven by countries with more mature healthcare systems like Singapore, South Korea and Australia, there is an appetite for digital health solutions across the entire region. Last year alone, US$2.6 billion was invested in health tech start-ups in the region, and based on 2018 figures to date, it looks as if this year will see even higher investment. This is unsurprising, given the rate at which Asian companies and customers are overtaking other regions when it comes to the adoption of new technology.

As a result, consumers who are getting used to the ease and quality that they see digital bring to every other part of life are now expecting the same from healthcare – the system, their providers and their disease management. Recent McKinsey studies have shown that consumers today actually prefer digital services for many areas of healthcare.

More importantly, digital health is not only welcome, but also highly necessary in Asia. As populations’ demand for quality healthcare and rates of chronic disease across the region grow, so does the need for systems and solutions that can keep people healthy – and digital health is the fastest and most cost-efficient way to deliver that. With plummeting technology prices and increased internet access, this is also true for those with lower incomes or the 50 percent of Asia’s population that live in rural areas.

To address these needs, governments across the region are looking to lay the foundations to enable digital health ecosystems and strategic health innovations, such as Singapore’s National Electronic Health Record or the Philippines PhilHealth e-claims. But it will fall to pharma, biotech and medtech companies to fill some of the gaps on the patient-level – beyond the plethora of consumer-friendly apps available that help people keep up their fitness regime or track their daily calorie intake.

Giving patients an active role in their healthcare

Fragmented treatment journeys and lack of disease knowledge are areas that need addressing – especially for those living with chronic disease – and integrated digital solutions are ideally placed to alleviate these pain points. For example, Janssen recently launched Vcare, a new digital service solution for patients that includes reliable disease education, access to online consultations, nursing care and online pharmacy logistics service. With positive initial feedback on our pilot platform in China, this service is expected to grow across countries and disease areas, tracking patient health and generating real world evidence while continuing to improve the overall patient experience.

One of the planned features for the Vcare platform is a communication aid that enables shared decision making between doctors and patients, which is growing in importance as patients become more proactively engaged with their health and the availability of more treatment options allow their preferences to inform treatment choices. While shared decision making is still in its infancy in many Asian countries, digital solutions can support its swift adoption across the region. For example, Janssen is working on a shared decision-making tool in South Korea to help patients living with rheumatoid arthritis and healthcare professionals decide on the best treatment option together.

Another example where digital technology can make a huge difference is medication adherence in the chronic disease space, an issue identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other organisations as a key area of action as chronic diseases are on the rise. To increase adherence among rheumatology patients on Janssen’s patient support program, they have developed wearables, connecting them to the existing support apps to track behaviours and send reminders and notifications to better tackle challenges in treatment management.

Collaborations in digital health for better health

While the future is promising, it is not promised. We still have a way to go to provide truly integrated digital health solutions that can address the challenges of healthcare in Asia.

Government support and provider engagement are critical to ensure the speedy and comprehensive adoption of digital health. Listening to patients and continuously assessing the data digital solutions are providing will be necessary to create tailored solutions to unmet needs and patient preferences. The healthcare industry will need to create new capabilities and forge new partnerships to connect their products with digital solutions. And above all, collaboration will be the key to success – if Governments, regulators, industry, healthcare providers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) do not work together, we will not be able to deliver on the promise of digital health for the millions of patients that are waiting for it.

Rowena Yeo is the vice president & chief information officer, Johnson & Johnson Technology, Asia Pacific

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