Digital acceleration in Philippine healthcare

In photo during the first part of BUSINESSWORLD Insights’ “The Impact of Technology on the Healthcare Sector” series with the topic “Digital Care: Health Tech Trends in 2021,” are (clockwise, from top left) moderator Arjay Balinbin of BusinessWorld; and panelists Dr. Enrique Tayag, Director IV of the Knowledge Management and Information Technology Service at the Department of Health; Juan Miguel Tan, President and Managing Director of Siemens Healthineers Philippines; and Ron Estrella, Country Manager of Medgate Philippines.

Latest innovations, initiatives shaping healthcare highlighted during BusinessWorld Insights

 Adrian Paul B. ConozaSpecial Features Writer

While technology has been improving the delivery of service in hospitals and healthcare facilities, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has further deepened the value of innovation in healthcare.

Telemedicine, for instance, was further utilized as an alternative to face-to-face appointments. Diagnoses, meanwhile, are effectively performed even outside the doctor’s office through devices enhanced with connectivity features.

These advancements and much more were highlighted during a recent BusinessWorld Insights online forum themed “Digital Care: Health Tech Trends in 2021,” the first of the two-part online series titled “The Impact of Technology on the Healthcare Sector.”

Digital health interventions

Dr. Enrique Tayag, Director IV of the Knowledge Management and Information Technology Service at the Department of Health (DoH), recognized that the pandemic has opened opportunities to consider digital health interventions to address the gaps revealed within the health sector. 

These interventions, the DoH official shared, include those for patients (e.g., telemedicine); for healthcare providers (e.g., electronic medical records); for health systems (e.g., “Kira Kontra COVID” chatbot; and for data services (e.g., unified enterprise architecture).

Such interventions, Dr. Tayag continued, aim to address gaps involving access to service delivery, supply of commodities, adherence to clinical guidelines, access to information, and access to the services themselves.

“Where choices are made by health providers for their patients, these digital health interventions restore the balance so that choices from patients themselves are on equal footing with the choices the health providers would provide their patients,” the DoH official later stressed.

Dr. Tayag noticed as well that the healthcare sector should deal with apparent cultural barriers, especially among those who are not yet comfortable with technology.

“Their options were to take care of themselves, get advice from others, and make use of social media,” Dr. Tayag observed about these individuals, “but they will be at risk for making wrong decisions. So, they have to reach out to a professional, [and] telemedicine provides them with this platform.”

Equity in the access to these interventions must be ensured so that those who might have difficulty in accessing these may not get left behind, he added.

Telemedicine as ‘force multiplier’

Ron Estrella, country manager of Medgate Philippines, shared how telemedicine has been appreciated as a solution that has been helpful to the Philippine population.

Mr. Estrella observed from their company’s experience that telemedicine “has come to the forefront of people’s minds” as a viable way to get medical care without being exposed to communicable diseases. 

The country manager also shared that over the past year, their company has seen increased demand by about 170%.

“Teleconsultations delivered to Filipinos from anywhere at any time is a great force multiplier in a situation where we don’t have enough doctors and frontliners,” Mr. Estrella said.

Far from replacing physical services, telemedicine should be viewed as complementary or in a “synergistic relationship” with existing healthcare infrastructure and personnel, Mr. Estrella stressed.

“70%-80% of our customers don’t ever have to see a doctor face to face because their condition can be treated through telemedicine… Now, they won’t clog up medical facilities,” he explained. “It will allow the actual physical facilities and doctors to deal with the conditions they really have to deal with.”

With this increased acceptance of telemedicine, nonetheless, Mr. Estrella sees a challenge in improving the experience of patients with this tool.

“It is incumbent upon us in the technology field and people who implement public strategy that we make the impact on the end-user as light as possible — that for them it is something they’re used to,” he said.

For telemedicine and telehealth to grow further, Mr. Estrella continued, more doctors and frontliners are needed to further provide healthcare.

“Once we have more doctors, then they can leverage on the platforms and the technology that we have,” he said, adding that affordable high-quality internet bandwidth is likewise vital to make this happen.

Mr. Estrella also regards advances in AI as a key growth driver as it takes over “the job of the mundane [in order] to allow our personnel to handle the more complex and complicated.”

Remote care

Juan Miguel Tan, president and managing director of Siemens Healthineers Philippines, noticed that while digital healthcare has been present in the country before COVID-19, the pandemic has accelerated this tremendously.

Furthermore, he observed, the situation pushed for the use of what he calls precision medicine, which the managing director sees will shape healthcare in the future.

Mr. Tan cited teleradiology as an example of digital healthcare’s entry pre-COVID, with sophisticated CT scanners enabling radiologists to read images and diagnosis remotely. Picture archiving and communication is another technology that has been employed, leading to huge savings on x-ray film and space requirements.

“Whatever the radiologist would see inside the hospital, he can see at his home or wherever he is located,” Mr. Tan stressed. “This is something that has been around and being done for many years, but it was stressed even more.”

At present, Mr. Tan shared, their firm has collaborated with the DoH, the World Bank, and Asian Development Bank to deliver over 200 mobile x-ray machines to remote areas. These are coupled with Wi-Fi connections for remote sending of data to host areas, where the data can be diagnosed in their workstations.

“We are hopeful that when this is done, we will be able to provide digital solutions — not only to the regional hospitals but even down to district level. It takes a lot of money, a lot of work, but it can be done,” Mr. Tan added.

Mr. Tan also shared that the medical solutions provider is launching a robotic system that will help in cardiac interventions and can be controlled even by a doctor from another hospital.

For the Siemens Healthineers Philippines president, such developments and the further use of these innovations should push remote care, aided by precision medicine, to shape the future of healthcare.

“We should be able to get diagnosed remotely. We should be able to consult remotely,” Mr. Tan stressed.