The 2020s have been marked by an unprecedented speed of change that will likely continue to grow faster and faster. This new pace brings profound implications for people’s ability and willingness to learn and adopt new technologies and ideas while doing the same to governments, which must navigate more complex policy decisions and formulate budgets under greater pressure. In this rapidly shifting environment, 2024 is bringing a variety of new changes, challenges, and opportunities to Asia Pacific’s healthcare sector. Shifting demographics, social changes, and new technologies will each leave their marks on the domain this year. To appraise this new environment that is being reshaped by innovations such as cell and gene therapies, bio-inductive implants, and AI-assisted discovery, we are taking the pulse on the latest trends that will shape the next twelve months.
According to the Asian Development Bank, population aging in Asia Pacific is happening at such a fast rate that by 2050, one out of every four people in the region will be over 60 years old. As the elderly form a growing portion of the population, a higher priority is being placed on helping older people live longer, healthier lives. Within this context, a wide range of technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence (AI), smart devices, sensors, apps, robotics, and video calling (telehealth) are being harnessed to fulfil functions that help the elderly manage their wellness and health.
While mental health and wellness have been traditionally viewed with a stigmatising attitude in the Asia-Pacific region, there is a shifting perception towards mental health and well-being, challenging the traditional stigma associated with it. This positive change is accompanied by a growing willingness to openly discuss mental illnesses – Aetna Insurance in Hong Kong reported a 30 percent increase in annualised claims for psychological and psychiatric services in 2020 compared to 2015. This change indicates an increasing awareness of mental health issues and a reduced fear of addressing psychological well-being. To accelerate this change, the region is actively working to create new opportunities for preventive and supportive mental health care. Organisations like Mind HK, a mental health charity based in Hong Kong, are dedicated to improving awareness and eradicating the stigma surrounding mental health. Mind HK undertakes comprehensive outreach campaigns and programs aimed at fostering a supportive mindset concerning mental health. A notable initiative by Mind HK is the implementation of clinically developed public and private training sessions utilising Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), which aims to enhance mental health literacy and equip individuals with the necessary tools to support well-being.
Climate change is increasingly being recognised as a significant healthcare concern in the Asia-Pacific region. The region is experiencing a wide array of health impacts resulting from climate change, affecting both physical and mental well-being. Extreme climatic events such as floods, air pollution, and heat waves are contributing to the increase of various diseases and illnesses. For example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has projected that rising sea levels and floods could affect approximately 73 million individuals by 2100, especially those in countries such as India and Vietnam, resulting in deaths, physical injuries, and psychological disorders. To address the heightened health risks associated with climate change, the Asia-Pacific region is implementing a variety of national and regional initiatives and policies. Notably, Health Care Without Harm Southeast Asia has introduced the RISE Southeast Asia Alliance for Health and Climate (RISE) initiative. This initiative aims to better understand the health impacts of climate change and to take proactive measures to safeguard public health. RISE aims to establish environmentally sustainable and resilient healthcare systems as a solution to escalating climate change risks. By fostering collaboration among health and climate leaders, RISE strives to strengthen Southeast Asia’s response to climate-related health challenges.
In recent years, value-based care has evolved from a novel concept into an industry hotspot within medical and industrial communities. It is expected that value-based care will continue to be a trend in the coming years as countries around the world continue to explore and practice different models. Value-based care is a healthcare delivery model where providers are paid based on patient health outcomes rather than the volume of services rendered, as in the traditional fee-for-service system. This approach shifts the focus from volume to value, incentivising providers to deliver more efficient and effective care. Unlike fee-for-service, where healthcare costs can escalate due to unnecessary tests and procedures, value-based care aligns costs with the actual improvement in patients’ health, promoting cost-effective treatments and preventative care. In Australia, the Choices Post-Discharge Program exemplifies this shift towards value-based care, aiming to provide better-coordinated, more flexible care, and community support services for Western Australians post-discharge to minimise recurrent hospitalizations. Looking forward, the transition from a fee-for-service to a fee-for-value system will take time. However, driven by technological advancements and an increasing focus on sustainable, patient-centred healthcare systems, value-based care is expected to become more widespread.
The 2020s are witnessing a boom in the utilisation of technologies that make it possible for individuals to receive care from the comfort of their homes. The telehealth industry was spurred by the COVID pandemic during which hospital visits became hazardous for people with frail immune systems, and lockdowns and social distancing measures made it difficult to leave home. This situation set in motion the productive use of technology to monitor patients remotely, reducing the need to physically make the trip to a doctor for a checkup, or to book into an assisted living facility with round-the-clock care. Not only does the availability of these technologies meet the desire of a growing number of elderly individuals to age at home independently and autonomously – it also offers consolation in a world that is facing a dwindling aged care workforce.
IOMT consists of smart devices connected to the internet and has played a major role in reducing reliance on care workers and institutions. IOMT can take the form of sensors and devices installed in homes to detect falls or remind patients to take their medication, or wearable devices that monitor a wide range of functions including movement, location, blood glucose levels, blood oxygen levels, heart rates, blood pressure, and sleeping patterns. The data from these devices are transmitted to healthcare providers who can then assess a patient’s status and intervene if necessary. One example of such a device is a smartwatch that fulfils multiple functions – it detects when the wearer has fallen and dispatches a call to either emergency response or family members, it monitors vital signs such as heart rate, and it offers the possibility to download useful health and wellness management apps such as medication reminders. A major benefit of a smartwatch is that all these functions can be fulfilled by an everyday piece of jewelry that seamlessly blends in with a patient’s daily life, unlike a pendant which individuals are sometimes self-conscious about wearing.
Another challenge faced in medical care is the shortage of specialised knowledge often required to treat rare conditions, resulting in long wait times. Here, technology offers solutions in the form of artificial intelligence that uses machine learning algorithms to make accurate diagnoses, as well as provide accurate treatment options and personalised care. By analysing data collected from remote monitoring devices over a period of time, AI can pick up anomalies in an individual’s bathroom visits or the frequency with which they fall or stumble, or detect if a person wanders around further away than usual. Remote monitoring, robotics, and AI, although reducing the need to physically go to a healthcare provider or to rely on a carer providing round-the-clock care, ultimately do not have to replace these services, but can be used in conjunction with them to make care more efficient. Another area where AI can provide a solution to an overburdened healthcare workforce is through robotics. Some robots can fulfil the unskilled or heavy-lifting duties of care workers such as helping a person get out of bed into a wheelchair, or assisting them with walking or house cleaning. Robots can also remind patients to take medications, and robotic pets can offer companionship.
Newly developed and emerging technologies are reshaping cancer detection and treatment, offering the promise of earlier diagnoses and more effective therapies. One such innovation is liquid biopsy, a non-invasive method that detects cancer cells or DNA in blood samples, providing a real-time snapshot of the tumour’s genetic landscape. The liquid biopsy assays approved to date by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are used to determine eligibility for certain targeted treatments, assess therapy response, and monitor disease progression in patients with lung, breast, prostate, colorectal, ovarian, and other solid cancers. Another cutting-edge advancement in immunotherapy, especially CAR T-cell therapy, is changing treatment outcomes for specific cancer types by genetically modifying patients’ own immune cells to more effectively recognise and combat cancer cells.
The Asia Pacific region is currently witnessing a remarkable surge in healthcare innovation, particularly in the field of organ 3D printing. This cutting-edge technology, which seemed like a distant dream a few years ago, is now rapidly becoming a reality, thanks to the concerted efforts of scientists and medical professionals across countries like Japan, South Korea, and China. These nations are investing heavily in research and development, positioning themselves as global leaders in this revolutionary field. Organ 3D printing in this region is not just a scientific endeavour but also a response to the acute shortage of donor organs. It holds the promise of generating tailor-made organs for patients, potentially reducing waiting times for transplants and improving the compatibility and success rates of these procedures. In terms of practical application and research, the Asia Pacific region is making significant strides. Researchers are increasingly focusing on developing bio-inks that can be used to print complex organs such as kidneys, livers, and even portions of the heart. These bio-inks are derived from living cells, which means that the printed organs have a higher chance of being accepted by the patient’s body, reducing the likelihood of rejection. This technology is not only revolutionary for its potential in transplants but also offers new avenues in pharmaceutical testing and disease modeling. By using 3D-printed organs, researchers can test the effects of drugs more accurately in a laboratory setting, paving the way for more effective treatments. The fusion of advanced technology and medical expertise in the Asia Pacific region is setting new standards in healthcare, potentially transforming the lives of millions of patients worldwide.
All the mechanisms that characterise trending healthcare technology such as telehealth, remote monitoring, smart devices, and AI, can be combined to shape a virtual hospital experience. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has established the world’s largest such model with the capacity to treat more than 400,000 patients a year. It connects specialists from more than 130 hospitals across the country with plans to expand its network further. IOMT is one of its key elements, enabling 24-hour remote monitoring of chronically ill or housebound patients. For patients who can travel, tests or X-rays can be done at a local hospital, which are then analysed by AI-powered medical imaging algorithms, the results of which immediately are sent to remote specialists. Improving hospitals’ abilities to connect doctors across different fields from different hospitals into a single platform makes collaboration and coordination in the management of a patient’s condition possible. Complex medical cases can therefore be reviewed by a committee of qualified specialists from different parts of the country. Virtual hospitals’ advanced capabilities essentially improve outcomes, make services more efficient, reduce waiting times, and improve patients’ access to specialists.
In Asia Pacific’s rapidly changing healthcare landscape in 2024, MNCs have a critical role to play in trying to help patients and caregivers better understand and use new technologies. Such support will help companies achieve more positive results and build more resilient reputations, resulting in greater take-up of their products by governments and populations across the region. An effective communications strategy can comprise an important part of this approach via methods such as social media campaigns, patient outreach, and professional education for medical staff. MNCs are advised to closely follow the latest social and technological trends that are quickly reshaping healthcare across the Asia Pacific region in 2024, stay abreast of new opportunities for their products and services to grow in these markets, and create effective communications strategies to realise these aims.