Better health is a click away

As medical consultations move online, patients will be less tethered to the doctor's office

Having attended to a huge number of patients at a public hospital in Bangkok, Dr Anucha Panoi understood the physical pain facing the sick. At the same time, he also saw the emotional pain caused by the limitations of access to medical specialists among patients in desperate need of help.

"The fact that patients cannot be attended by specialists who are otherwise able to provide them accurate treatments is an excruciating pain," said Dr Anucha.

Realising such a difficulty has barred patients, especially those with public healthcare providers, from getting access to medical experts, Dr Anucha along with other team members founded Doctor A To Z in early 2018 to serve as a telemedicine platform where patients can make an appointment, consult and be treated by medical specialists. Doctor A To Z -- as a start-up company -- gave birth to a smartphone application, now available for download on the App Store and Google Play.

Doctor A To Z is one of the business ecosystem partners that UOB Thailand has introduced to its Wealth and Privilege Banking customers. UOB Thailand staff also can receive free medical consultations via Doctor A To Z during the continuing Covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Doctor A To Z collaborated with UOB Thailand and Bangkok Healthcare Service (BHS), setting up a campaign to support entrepreneurs who would like to enter or transform their businesses to a nursing home project. While UOB Thailand offers financial support, Doctor A To Z and BHS will lend a helping hand in terms of operation and business consultation.

According to Dr Anucha who also serves as the company's CEO, the services of Doctor A To Z can be divided into three segments. First, it offers an expert community platform that gathers over 1,000 medical specialists covering more than 22 fields.

Second, Doctor A To Z also functions as a central smartphone application that connects and combines all experts in one place. It also creates an ecosystem of the healthcare industry where other interrelated services are available including medication delivery to home, electronic insurance claims and so forth.

Third, the company also develops technology and know-how for partners such as hospitals, clinics, organisations or even cities keen to have their own smart health system. Doctor A To Z can step in to provide healthcare solutions -- for both applications and websites.

"Through the Doctor A To Z application, patients can get direct access to a medical specialist. They can just stay home, make an appointment, discuss and get the doctor's recommendations. The doctor will then write an e-prescription, which is linked to our partner pharmacy. The medicines can then be delivered to patients' doorsteps. All this can be done at their fingertips," said Dr Anucha, former head of the Vascular Division at Phramongkutklao Hospital.

With over 80,000 application downloads, medical consultations via Doctor A To Z cost 250 to 360 baht per 15 minutes.

Amid the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, telemedicine inevitably becomes a new healthcare norm, Dr Anucha said. In the United States, for example, the number of telehealth visits increased by 50% during the first quarter of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The telemedicine market is expected to grow the most in Asia-Pacific, according to data from BIS Research. By 2026, the market value is expected to reach US$15.6 billion (521 billion baht), a four-fold growth when compared to 2019. Countries with huge telemedicine market growth will include Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

"Covid-19 has indeed changed consumer behaviour," Dr Anucha said. "In Thailand, although telemedicine is still growing at a slow pace, the pandemic has made people aware of the convenience of telemedicine technologies where they can see their doctor without having to travel to the hospital, exposing themselves to infection risks.

"Furthermore, people have increasingly been aware of the accessibility they can get through telemedicine technologies -- how they can get to talk to their doctors longer and in a more relaxed approach. The challenge now is how well we encourage people to use and get more familiar with such a technology."

As a medical doctor himself, Dr Anucha said telemedicine technologies also benefit doctors who can now provide consultation and treatments remotely. This way, medical personnel are at a lower risk of catching the novel coronavirus.

Nonetheless, telemedicine in Thailand is not without obstacles and challenges.

"A number of Thais are still not familiar with telemedicine," the CEO explained. "Especially patients in rural areas who have no idea how to download the application and so forth. Doctor A To Z has launched a 'caregiver model' where healthcare volunteers or one family member can function as a communication centre. They can go talk to patients and then consult our specialists on behalf of the patients. This way, patients can still get recommendations and treatments from experts even though they have no clue what telemedicine really is."

To pave the way for a more efficient telemedicine system in Thailand, Dr Anucha said all stakeholders should learn lessons from other countries.

He cited recent progress in Indonesia where the government started delivering free telemedicine services for Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms across the country in a bid to ease hospital pressure as cases hit record highs. These digital healthcare services are delivered in partnership with digital health platforms called Alodokter and Halodoc which provide free teleconsultations and medication delivery.

"In the future, telemedicine will be incorporated into all sectors of the country. Patients' medical records will be databased and available on cloud," he said.

Back to Thailand, Dr Anucha foresees a gradual yet sustainable expansion in terms of the future of telemedicine. In the next few years, he strongly believes telemedicine will grow hand in hand with the Internet of Things. Digital home-based care will become increasingly popular.

"People, for example, can have a Covid-19 screening using an antigen test kit and then upload the test results on the cloud," he said. "The telehealth system will be used more frequently both inside and outside hospitals."

As for long-term outcomes, Dr Anucha believes artificial intelligence in healthcare will be the next big thing. Healthcare products will be more data-driven and smart health will become a big part of smart cities.

"All these telemedicine technologies will take time to be implemented. So although they won't take place in Thailand anytime soon, I truly believe this is the beginning of a smart healthcare ecosystem in the country," he concluded.

Building Sustainable Cities is a 13-part series that explores essential elements & insights on how individuals and businesses can take action to forge a cleaner, greener tomorrow in collaboration with UOB Thailand. You can view the whole series here

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