Last year, I watched the inaugural Techonomy Bio conference from a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. At the time, I was working on my first healthcare consulting project—a market research study for German medical device manufacturers interested in Vietnam. I spent my days interviewing suppliers, distributors, purchasers, regulators, and other stakeholders, trying to make sense of the snarled Vietnamese healthcare system. Where was the opportunity for new, high-quality equipment in a country with limited resources? It was a challenging question.
Due to the time difference between Vietnam and America, I couldn’t catch the live webcast of the conference, but in the week after the event, I ended each day by kicking up my feet and watching video footage of the 2014 conference sessions on my laptop. My mom was visiting that week, so it became something of a parent-child bonding ritual as well. She spent more than a decade as a rehabilitation counselor for methadone patients on Long Island, where she frequently struggled with all the bureaucratic hassles and inefficiencies of modern healthcare, so she shared my interest in healthcare innovation and reform.
Watching those videos hammered home a fact that both of us already knew: in both developed and developing countries, much of modern healthcare is fundamentally broken. What we didn’t know was the extent to which innovations at the intersection of IT, biotech, and life sciences held potential to improve the situation everywhere. It was captivating, and also reassuring, since I think we both longed to feel safer, healthier, and better served by these two very different healthcare systems. Yet it also felt somewhat abstract. How would we, as regular health consumers, actually experience the benefits that were being discussed?
Inspired by the conference and the questions it raised, I soon found myself immersed in news and research about digital healthcare trends. I was particularly interested in how digital healthcare was impacting the emerging markets of Southeast Asia, where I’ve been based since 2010. As I dug around on this topic, I started writing for Techonomy about what I saw. Through this research, I also got involved with mClinica, a digital health company that’s using mobile technology to improve access, affordability, and quality of essential medicines in emerging markets.
My research ultimately painted a picture of a promising but underserved market for digital health. Across Southeast Asia, consumer health apps, IT-powered public health tools, health information systems, and other digital services have steadily emerged in recent years, but uptake has been limited by low per-capita health spending, lack of technological sophistication among consumers, and perplexing regulations. Yet development has been lifting incomes throughout the region, so opportunities for investment in health and many other industries are expanding.
Much of this investment is led by the public sector. In March, I wrote about how NGOs are developing innovative tools to improve medical education in emerging markets. In January, I highlighted three NGOs using mobile tech to fight tuberculosis. And in September last year, I wrote about the growing range of software platforms available to NGOs for public health campaigns.
Undoubtedly, such initiatives play an important role in global health, but their long-term sustainability and scalability is uncertain. As countries like Vietnam approach middle-income status, public sector funding tends to dry up and shift to more needy areas. But will improved infrastructure and health practices remain? In many places, that’s an open question.
Private health tech companies, on the other hand, have greater potential to grow as emerging countries do, but there aren’t yet enough of them to address the many pressing Southeast Asian health challenges. Part of the problem is an ongoing shortage of investment and insufficient opportunities for collaboration. Unlike in the United States, Southeast Asia does not have dedicated healthcare accelerator programs like Rock Health or Startup Health. And although tons of venture money has poured into the region for hot tech sectors like e-commerce, investments in digital healthcare have been relatively thin.
Kickstart Ventures, a Philippines-based accelerator and venture fund, deserves mention for its efforts to develop health tech in Southeast Asia. It was an early investor in mClinica, where I’m currently working. It was also an early investor in Medix, a cloud-based clinic management service that builds IT systems for hospitals, clinics, and dental practices. In addition, Kickstart is hosting a series of events about digital health in the Philippines that aim to further build the entrepreneurial ecosystem. This is great, but Kickstart is a rare pioneer.
In light of the opportunities and challenges for digital health in Southeast Asia, I was intrigued by the panel session on Advances, Opportunities, and Challenges at this year’s Techonomy Bio event, which I also watched from a hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City. The session consisted of an unscripted conversation between Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce and an active healthcare philanthropist.
Benioff and Desmond-Hellmann seemed optimistic about the potential of digital health to improve lives in both developed and developing markets. Although some of this impact will be limited to affluent countries, advances in disease tracking and therapeutics, along with countless other innovations, will power major transformations everywhere. But despite recent progress, they agreed that more interdisciplinary work between experts in IT and healthcare is needed to speed advancements in digital health. They also agreed we need more investment in healthcare data, and tools for managing and analyzing that data effectively.
Better health data is certainly needed in Southeast Asia. While some speakers and audience members at Techonomy Bio complained about electronic medical records in the United States, clinics and pharmacies in many Southeast Asian countries still use paper logbooks and receipts. This reduces service quality and creates huge gaps in health records. That’s one of the reasons I’m now working with mClinica. It is developing digital health platforms that connect pharmacies, doctor’s offices, pharmaceutical companies, and patients in Asia’s emerging markets. As these various stakeholders become connected, the opportunities to improve public health are enormous.