Putting the ‘care’ back in health care

Healthcare solutions evolving to meet the needs of Asia's ageing population, but a doctor's personal touch cannot be replaced

Asia, specifically Singapore, has changed dramatically in the 10 years that I have been living and working here.

In a region characterised by dynamism and an entrepreneurial "can-do" spirit, health care continues to evolve to stay relevant. When it comes to health care in this region, it is almost critical to innovate.

Last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that parts of the region risk "getting old before becoming rich", while Deloitte has forecast that by the 2030s, Asia will be home to over 60 per cent of the total global population aged 65 and above.

UOB recently reported that as at the end of last year, the number of Singaporeans aged 65 and above matched the number of people under the age of 15 for the first time.

Add to this ageing population the rise of chronic conditions such as diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, and the future looks like one where a longer life could also be a less abled one.

As part of its Smart Nation vision, Singapore has launched forward-thinking telehealth initiatives to better support self-care and ageing in place.

In Tokyo's Shin-tomi nursing home, robots are delivering care. Automated units lead elderly residents in exercises, offer balance support and even engage in basic conversations.

Israeli startup Intuition Robotics raised US$22 million (S$29.3m) in funds for its Elliq, a non-humanoid robotic companion driven by artificial intelligence (AI) to keep the user both connected to the outside world and active, while promising to be "extremely emotive".

Of course, tech solutions are not just for the elderly. The idea of doctors leveraging wearables to close gaps in knowledge in patient records and improve care delivery is gaining traction.

But what is all of this innovation adding up to? What does this new order of healthtech achieve when it comes to the patient experience?

A computer, no matter how sophisticated, cannot be empathetic. And while big data may reveal trends in public health, it can also miss out on the most important nuances of patient and caregiver behaviour.

Underlying all of this is the fact that patients, especially the elderly, need to preserve a connection to their care provider.

When it comes to one's health, a human connection remains immeasurable and irreplaceable, no matter how sophisticated the tech.

It is perhaps this inability to close this gap that has driven a wedge in care, resulting in patients confused by how their wearable fits in with the Internet of Things (IoT), or if a chat bot has a human at the end of the line, or getting used to consulting their doctor over their smartphones and not in person.

I suggest that the sweet spot lies between suspicion of technology and the trope of the country doctor making house calls.

Our industry today is, and will continue to be, heavily dependent on technology.

Still, real human interactions need not be lost with the evolution of our industry towards this tech-driven approach as long as solutions remain an enabler rather than a substitute for the core relationship in health care.

Mr Ali Parsa, CEO of Babylon Health, once said: "Allow doctors to be 'more human' by allowing machines to be 'more machine'."

I believe we can take comfort and guidance in that. This means that big data, virtual reality, AI and other tools should be harnessed thoughtfully, with the patients' true needs being centre stage, guiding technology's use and development, while the doctor remains firmly in the captain's seat; with advanced tools freeing up more time and providing more information to enable better care.

As health care leaders, our playing field is becoming more complex, but our mandate remains unchanged - to keep the care in health care.

The writer is senior vice-president, Classic & Established Products, at GSK. This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday