Baidu's new medical chatbot Melody embodies the rise of "ehealth": electronic healthcare beneficial to patients and clinicians alike.
Users log into the cloud-based app to book an appointment, and before a doctor enters the frame, Melody gently investigates symptoms and history.
The doctor then starts the consultation with a better set of records, “thus saving maybe you and the doctor time and the multiple rounds of back-and-forth,” Andrew Ng - the chief scientist at China's web services giant Baidu - told Inc.com in an October 2016 video interview.
Baidu's chatbot is just one development in the fast-changing, technology-driven health sector. As broadband-fuelled connectivity swells, ehealth bots, apps and gadgets multiply. The market for ehealth - or “mhealth" as it's also called, in a nod to mobiles - is gaining momentum.
And with a player the size of Baidu moving in, it is clear that Asia's eHealth market is on a fast-rising trajectory.
China, with an expected five billion-odd connected devices by 2020, will lead Asia's skyrocketing ehealth investment. Already, the Asia Pacific region yields US$6.8 billion in mhealth revenue, says market data hub Statista. And despite a lack of cashed-up ehealth startups, APAC already accounts for almost a third of global mobile health revenue.
“It would be fair to say that ehealth has often over-promised and under-delivered,” says Sydney-based digital health strategist Tim Blake, who heads advisory Semantic Consulting.
Blake believes that technology-wise, the health industry seriously lags behind others such as financial services – by some twenty years, he adds.
The advent of Big Data and the remarkable medical advances possible by collating large datasets of patient information have garnered plenty of eHealth advocates but governance issues and complex health ecosystems have slowed its adoption.
Blake says embracing ehealth will be a key step forward; he expects mobile apps, wearables, genomics and more to continue to hugely disrupt the health sector.
A greater commitment to ehealth is just a necessity, says NSW-based telecommunications analyst Paul Budde, citing the mounting cost of traditional healthcare.
“The only way forward is a far more efficient delivery," he says, adding that telemedicine can help. Already, he says, electronic diagnostics are available through smartphones and other connected devices.
Another key driver for mHealth development is Singapore health insurance companies, who see ehealth as a serious (and much-needed) cost-saver – particularly when the rate of 'medical inflation,' via the fast-rising costs of health care, is pegged at around 15%.
Singapore - which aims to become southeast Asia's own Silicon Valley - is seeing a wealth of ehealth startups. The roll-call includes high-profile doctor connection network RingMD, personalised wellness service including genetic testing and sensor-based tracking - Tucker Medical, and the soothing "non-weighted hug vest" TJacket, which links to the cloud.
What do eHealth start-ups look like? The variety is astonishing; the three portraits following show the breadth of happening ehealth startups across the Asia Pacific region, from Singapore to Taiwan and then New Zealand.
Singapore-based ehealth startup Klinify offers a document management app touted as “just like paper - but better.” The app lets doctors bypass data-entry clerks and easily digitise patient records. Clinicians flip through the app's virtual pages and templates, scribbling notes, drawing images, even adding videos to flesh out diagnoses.
Klinify is reminiscent of the popular consumer app Evernote and needs minimal training, with software, scanner, and tablets taking just 20 minutes to set up.
Klinify was founded in 2011 by Krishanthan Surendran, a refugee from Sri Lanka's brutal civil war. Krish was working for Apple's retail team when two separate blows nudged him towards health sector reform: losing a friend to leukaemia, and the dire private health care he received during his own recovery from a disc herniation.
Krish and his Klinify co-founder, computer scientist Nishanth Sudharsanam, built the company with the help of the science-of-startups accelerator Joyful Frog Digital Innovation (JFDI).Then, in 2014, Klinify secured US$604,000 in seed funding through the Singapore investment firm Jungle Ventures, via Singapore's Technology Incubation Scheme.
"Every other profession introduced screens and keyboards to manage information 20 years ago," Jungle Ventures' managing partner Amit Anand told Digital News Asia. He's become a Klinify evangelist, and believes the product was long overdue.
Klinify has already raised US$644,000, according to startup bible Crunchbase.
The startup's aim - to streamline workflow – reflects Krish's Zen-style adherence to peace and simplicity. “Removing noise from life allows you to think about other things," he told the digital publisher Tusitala.
He says that by reducing distraction, we can channel the power of our subconscious mind – hence the aim of Klinify, to cut through the clutter towards a paperless clinic.
Another smart island with a humming startup scene, Taiwan, is the birthplace of the glucose-monitoring venture H2, pronounced "H squared”.
H2 has already secured several million dollars in funding. Investors have realised the venture has a bright future with Asia accounting for half of the world's diabetic population.
Health2Sync is an intuitive cable-and-software solution that combines a patient's old-school glucometer with an app that turns their connected smartphone into an intelligent screening device allowing users to log blood sugar, blood pressure, weight, medication, diet, exercise, even mood.
Feedback is sent back to the patient - and for those trending towards a hypoglycemic event, the SMS alert they get could save their life.
Ed Deng, co-founder of Health2Sync, says glucose-screening is usually a boring, low-tech chore, involving patients recording their blood-sugar readings in a logbook. The tedium can lull diabetics into losing track of their blood-sugar levels, with disastrous results.
Since the company began in 2013, H2's plug-n-sync solution has helped innumerable patients manage their blood sugar and co-exist with diabetes.
Deng, a former Lehman Brothers analyst, has a science degree from the University of Virginia. He founded the startup in 2013, prompted by his own realisation of the scale of this chronic health crisis.
“Diabetes is a global catastrophe,” he says. “I've watched all four of my grandparents and now my parents battle diabetes without the proper tools."
By leveraging technology and catering to patient needs, H2 has proven clinical efficacy, Deng says.
Clearly, investors find his case persuasive, with Crunchbase reporting that the startup has raised US$4.5 million in funding.
An estimated ten percent of all adults suffer from tinnitus, a condition that can involve hearing sudden or ongoing ringing or gurgling sounds and is associated with hearing loss.
Tinnitus Tunes is a website and app that can treat the condition of tinnitus online, using the tools and techniques used in the University of Auckland's hearing clinic.
Users can access educational information and download special sounds designed to re-wire their neural pathways, shifting attention away from the awful din that racks their brains. The user is presented with a string of short sound clips, which they must identify, nominating the ear or ears in which the sounds are heard.
As users work through the series, their brains must work harder to identify the sounds as the app superimposes other noise that acts as a distraction.
But as the users strive to focused on identifying the special sounds, in time they begin ignoring tinnitus. “It is still there, but the person is no longer aware of it. This is taking advantage of what is known as 'brain plasticity,'” says Tinnitus Tunes chief executive Tom Donaldson, who is a trained psychologist and former Deloitte partner.
Donaldson's therapeutic brain training program can be completed in fifteen sessions of 20 to 30 minutes in just three weeks: music to the ears of tinnitus sufferers.
Donaldson's app stands out because it involves a direct treatment for a chronic illness - a rarity in a field given to incremental improvements in admin.
His radical e-health startup began in mid-2015 but already has clients from New Zealand, Australia, China, Japan, India and over 30 other countries.
2017 and beyond
By 2030, two-thirds of the global middle class will be living in the Asia-Pacific, with China's middle class accounting for 1 billion people, according to the global consultancy EY.
APAC's growing middle class is hungry for healthcare, and its burgeoning connectivity and ageing populace have spurred a boom in demand for ehealth solutions, which will leave doctors better briefed and more empowered. Ehealth will also mean that patients can better handle their own clinical issues remotely, using smartphones.
Perth-based eHealth consultant David Paré believes these technologies will deliver a new era of improved care.
“The digital platform has the potential to revolutionise health service use and delivery, help health systems bend the cost curve, and usher in an era of contextualised information that could be called Healthcare 3.0," Paré says.
In practical terms, though, the biggest advantage of the world Paré foresees will likely include fewer physical treks to the clinic and less queuing, which spells less stress – and therefore, a happier populace. Just ask a chatbot.