Telemedicine turned out to be a useful tool to address medical labor shortages, as healthcare workers were mobilized to fight COVID-19.
- It addressed non-emergency issues such as chronic illnesses and common ailments over online consultations and diagnosis.
- Safe-distancing regulations meant more patients steered clear of clinics and hospitals, instead turning to telehealth to get medical consultations and prescriptions.
- This article is part of a series called Resilient Singapore, which focuses on Singapore’s resilient and sustainable growth in the post-pandemic world.
Andy Ng, a Singaporean retiree in his 60s, decided to skip his regular visits to the neighborhood clinic during the circuit breaker, Singapore’s version of a lockdown that went on for two months starting April 7.
Despite medical services being one of the few essential services that were allowed during the lockdown, he decided to steer clear of the snaking queues and got his diabetes medications refilled over a telehealth app instead.
“On some mornings, the queues can stretch all the way to the next two shop units. I don’t want to take the risk, and I certainly don’t want to wait that long just to get my daily diabetes meds,” he said, adding that his “tech-savvy” daughter, who is in her 30s, helped him to sign up as a new user on the telehealth platform.
Safe-distancing regulations may have impacted sectors such as food and beverage and retail greatly, but telemedicine startups are seeing brisk business as patients stayed home to avoid catching COVID-19.
Singapore-based telemedicine startup Doctor Anywhere is an established player in the emerging telehealth sector. Its founder, chief executive officer and chairman Wai Mun Lim, who was previously an investment manager, was inspired by the successes of telehealth startups Teladoc and MDLive in the United States.
Singapore did not have any key players in telemedicine just a few years earlier. Doctor Anywhere launched the startup in 2015, becoming one of the pioneering entrants to telemedicine in Singapore.
Besides catering to individual patients who visit doctors for their personal healthcare needs, Doctor Anywhere runs a corporate partnership program to provide telehealth services to company employees. That brings the total number of active users to 1 million.
For many who believe that they need doctors to assess them physically to provide an accurate diagnosis, which is not the case for many common primary ailments, the situation has removed their barriers to telehealth usage, almost overnight, Lim said.
About nine times more patients used Doctor Anywhere to get medication refills for their chronic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, Lim said.
And as the stress of job cuts and mandatory lockdowns took its toll, Lim said the platform saw more cases of stress-related ailments such as insomnia.
“Users can video call a licensed psychologist or counselor confidentially from the privacy of their home, and avoid the potential embarrassment of being seen at the clinic,” he said. “There are also substantial time and cost savings with virtual video consultations compared to face-to-face consultations, that can help to lower the barrier for people who need help.”
How the medical sector will evolve post-pandemic
Growth in usage has slowed slightly but Lim believes its current pace will sustain over the long-term. This is a sign that more users are incorporating the telehealth model into their healthcare options, instead of using it as a last resort due to the pandemic.
“We also see a very encouraging retention rate for our users, which possibly means that they like our concept of delivering healthcare,” he added.
But telemedicine does not aim to replace the face-to-face doctor consultation at all, Lim insists. Instead, Doctor Anywhere will be a complementary tool to improve the delivery of healthcare.
“Aside from telehealth services, Doctor Anywhere operates eight physical PHPCs island-wide,” Lim said. “We also work with a panel of allied health providers, specialists, and general practitioner clinics island-wide.”
Known as Public Health Preparedness Clinics, PHPCs were set up to serve the primary healthcare needs of Singaporeans in times of a national healthcare crisis, and are equipped to respond to public health emergencies such as the influenza pandemic.
The platform acts as a repository of patient information — so if a patient visits more than one of the platform’s partner clinics, the doctors can access the patient’s healthcare history. They can come up with more accurate diagnoses based on the symptoms recorded.
Expanding to Southeast Asia
Doctor Anywhere is on a mission is to be the largest tech-enabled omni-channel healthcare provider in Southeast Asia. Although the region has seen more telemedicine startups come into the fold, Lim believes that healthcare is still ripe for disruption.
It launched its Malaysian operations in August, and is on track to launch in the Philippines “very soon,” Lim said. Its regional expansion is funded by a US$27 million Series B investment announced in April this year.
“A lot of the stakeholders are still operating in silos, without connectivity, largely due to deficiency in tech enablement,” he continued. “Doctor Anywhere sees this as a problem as well as an opportunity for us to help connect the system which can ultimately lead to an improvement in users’ healthcare outcomes.”