This article takes a closer look at some examples of HealthTech companies and startups in the Asia Pacific region who have addressed the Covid-19 pandemic with their solutions. The mentioned innovators were part of a video on HealthTech in the series “Digital life under Covid-19 and beyond” produced by Heinrich-Boell-Stiftung’s Hong Kong office for the ‘Tech and Covid-19’ project that analyses global digital trends during the pandemic.
In March 2020 when the pandemic hit large parts of the world, the healthcare industry was forced to switch into crisis mode. Doctors and patients had to adhere to social distancing rules, and this was exactly when the world started noticing innovations coming from the HealthTech sector. From AI-powered diagnostics to motion sensor Robots and health data sharing apps many tech solutions are likely to stay with us, even after the immediate crisis has abated. While technology is not a silver bullet to overcome weaknesses and inequalities in healthcare infrastructures, its contribution to comprehensive pandemic responses and role in complementing conventional public-health measures is likely to become increasingly digital.
Trace, track, test
Many Asian countries were pioneers at introducing and implementing HealthTech applications in the first months of the outbreak, which now, eight months in, have become in many ways a standard to the rest of the world. Public health authorities' worst nightmare is the uncontrollable spread of the virus without an unknown source. When tackling this rather complex issue on transmission and patient tracing ARx Media, a smart city startup from Kuching, Malaysia came up with an easy to use tracing app for premise check-ins. Residents, visitors, and staff were asked to scan a QR code upon entry, key in their temperature, and provide some personal data. Within a short period, the ARx team was approached by the local state authority, which resulted in a collaboration that allows local health authorities to access the unified and secure database only whenever a patient investigation is required.
XpertFlow a Pakistan-based AI-powered healthcare startup is using their technology to predict life-threatening medical conditions such as sepsis. Their wearable device is equipped with a state-of-the-art biosensor, which supports doctors in monitoring a patient's vital signs. The collected data are sent to a machine learning-enabled computational device, which displays a forecast of the patient’s condition based on historical data collected. One would think now, what have sepsis and Covid-19 in common? One of the most common causes of sepsis is pneumonia, which is an infection of the lungs. Since Covid-19, in most cases, targets and attacks the lungs, the virus is very likely to activate the overactive immune response of the human body to pneumonia, causing the patient to go into a state of septicemia.
Robots - our new normal
Reflecting over the past months and various lockdowns later, one fact standing out the most is that medical and healthcare professionals are massively overstrained. The sheer numbers of intensive care patients, availability of medical and PPE equipment, facility hygiene maintenance are among the highest priority topics for any Healthcare provider around the globe. To ease some of the burdens and minimize the risk of infection many hospitals have deployed robots for some of the tasks usually performed by staff members.
As a measure of epidemic control, the Hong Kong SAR Government adopted a containment strategy to enforce epidemic prevention with one of them being temperature control. A Hong Kong founded Robotics startup ROBORN under the leadership and Co-Founder Prof. Ka Yeung, Larry Poon acted very early into the pandemic and developed a motion-controlled humanoid temperature control robot. The epidemic prevention robot is designed to move around autonomously, measure human body temperature with embedded sensors, and recognize whether the person is wearing a mask.
Another Hong Kong company contributing to fighting the pandemic locally and overseas is Time Medical Systems. A global medical imaging company developed medical grade robots, which are used for sterilization of operation theaters, intensive care units, public bathrooms, and other indoor facilities. The Intelligent Sterilization Robot (ISR) is equipped with different features including a navigation system and vaporization nozzles, which sprays the disinfectant 360°. The inbuilt UVC light kills 90-95% of bacteria and viruses on the surface, and in the air in less than a minute.
What to do when there is no doctor around and a government-imposed curfew?
This scenario is not out of a Sci-Fi movie but actual reality and government epidemic control strategy in Sri Lanka. In March 2020 after the first case was confirmed, the country went into an extremely stringent lockdown. The Sri Lankan Government acted swiftly and entered a partnership with private telemedicine virtual care provider oDoc by assigning 250 government doctors to the platform. Users can consult public doctors for free via the App, receive a prescription and even have the medication delivered to their doorsteps. A total game-changer for the citizens of Sri Lanka but in particular for certain target groups living in remote areas, which had suddenly access to specialized doctors.
New currency - health passport
Covid-19 has shown that Government administrations need to be overhauled and digitized, so they can function and respond efficiently to any kind of circumstances. The Singapore Government did exactly that by working with Accredify, a blockchain startup from Singapore, which came up with the Health Passport. This solution allows medical institutes to issue verifiable healthcare records such as discharge memos or Covid-19 test results, and store them in the Health Passport for individuals to use easily e.g. as proof to the employer or as a travel document before boarding a flight.
What are the tech challenges going forward to fight this pandemic?
According to Keith De Alwis, Co-founder and COO of oDoc “Adaptation of government-sponsored technology platforms is the biggest challenge in South Asia where smartphone penetration and literacy rates are still low, it’s not just about rolling out the technology it also educating the consumer”. Also, data security remains a challenge for providers and users, and according to Zheng Wei, CEO and Co-Founder of Accredify “Governments need to explore ways to help non-tech savvy people to use healthtech applications and ensure data sharing in a secure manner”.
The pandemic has shown the world so far, that innovations in particular in the digital space don’t necessarily need a lot of development time. With the many much-needed solutions being introduced into our new normal some of the solutions, even free, are not accessible to all. Reasons for that are for example low-bandwidth in remote areas, user-unfriendly interface, and availability of multiple languages including Braille. With time and a better understanding of diverse needs, more adapted solutions with various features will be coming out in near future. As Hussein Reka put it in his widely read article on the digital revolution in Healthcare: “Healthcare is first and foremost about humans and their wellbeing. And digitalization could be the key to providing adequate healthcare to everyone at a reasonable cost.” Finally, investment in healthtech, accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis, will also require constant evaluation of what technologies are beneficial, as well as a debate in society and amongst policy-makers on best practices and health ethics.