By Greg Beatty
Predictions are hard, especially about the future. One year ago, nobody would have believed it would be a low tech (or no tech) mask that would get us through the current pandemic. But we still need to rely on vaccines and other technology solutions for a permanent fix.
Let’s consider what’s on the horizon in general for healthcare.
Healthcare is on the cusp of major transformation. Globally, three forces are occurring simultaneously:
- Ageing demographics
- Sophistication of medical tools and treatment
- Digital technologies and artificial intelligence (AI)
What’s the realistic expectation for Thailand?
Thailand’s ‘Great Leap’ Opportunity
The ageing population in Thailand points to a growing domestic market that will need more medical and healthcare treatment. Elderly folks are most at risk for disease and disability. The proportion of older persons in total population will increase from 16.9% in 2016, 23.8% in 2025, and nearly 30% by 2050.
In addition to serving the domestic demand for medical services, Thailand is a leader in medical tourism - serving travelers for annual check-ups, “snip, sew and go” operations, and other medical procedures.
Thailand’s bigger potential for growth, however, is healthcare tourism for the ageing. This would mean a paradigm shift from short term event-based care to longer term process care. The shift is worth considering because according to the U.N., the number of persons aged 65 years or over in the world is projected to double to 1.5 billion in 2050.
Everyone wants to age productively – a longer lifespan with better lifestyle. Lifestyle is a matter of personal choice, but most people in the West would agree that escaping winter months, which can be hard on the elderly, is desirable. Just ask a Canadian if they prefer the bone-chilling weather that still lingers into late March or the savannah warmth of Thailand.
If access to affordable medical and healthcare treatment in the destination country is secure too, then lifestyle is only further measured by the availability of daily luxuries.
Thailand’s tropical climate with a relatively reasonable cost of living is attractive for the elderly and retirees, all of whom are candidates for medical and ongoing healthcare treatment. As well, Thailand is one of those rare countries that attracts repeat travelers because of its diversity – the big city living of Bangkok, the mountainous north and the beachy south.
In 2019, Bangkok ranked 1st surpassing Paris and London in Mastercard’s list of Global Destination Cities Index 2019 with 22.78 million visitors. Phuket was 14th with 9.89 million visitors. And the U.S. News' 2017 Best Countries report ranked Thailand at 4th globally for adventure value and 7th for cultural heritage.
Surprisingly, with those laudatory credentials, Thailand’s ‘Top 10 Arrivals by Country’ only include two Western countries: Russia and the U.S. It seems then, that Western countries are not yet a fully tapped market.
In sum, Thailand is well positioned to attract healthcare tourism from the West:
- Western countries - retirement and medical costs are high, climate temperature is low
- Thailand - retirement and medical costs are low, climate temperature is high
What Will it Take?
It’s a no brainer: Demographics drive the potential for a healthcare ecosystem that caters to the elderly. But building an ecosystem requires the alignment of policies across several government ministries. A coordinated regulatory framework will provide a foundation from which to accommodate and accelerate sophisticated technology solutions in healthcare.
To attract a greater inflow of healthcare travelers, the ecosystem requires:
- Immigration policies and visas that cater to long term stays tied to minimum healthcare- spend thresholds
- Tie-ins with insurance, so that risk is borne by insurance companies, not the Thai public
- Facilities for assisted care and home care living that deliver various treatments at multiple levels of affordability
Sophistication of Tools and Treatment
In general, technology advancements in healthcare are happening because of the emergence of non-healthcare players, mostly digital tech companies. These companies are developing tools and applications not just for treatment, but for prevention too. The scope is widening from sick care to health care, such as personal health sensors.
A significant trend is ‘ongoing monitoring’ for the prevention and detection of disease. AI will play a role, since sensors are all about collecting and analyzing data with the aim to prevent or slow down the onset of disease. Wearable devices are not just to glance at pulse rates during exercise. The Apple watch, for example, can now send EKG reports and other alerts directly to medical teams.
Digital Technologies and AI
To debate which digital technologies will emerge to the forefront or Thailand’s position in the AI invention space is to miss the point. By developing an ecosystem with a strong foundation, Thailand can cast a wide net to capture any or all technology solutions. As new applications come to market, Thailand can pick and choose. A more robust and flexible ecosystem creates more options. More options mean more services to be offered.
According to the demographics, there’s no question about the demand for healthcare services. The question is whether Thailand is ready, willing and able to satisfy the demand. For a paradigm shift, medical and healthcare teams will require training to develop KYP (know your patient) systems as new digital and AI tools come online. For example, to distinguish between an incoming sensor alert that really requires assistance and an alert that is a false positive.
So, while Thailand does not need to be on the bleeding edge of technology innovation, it will need to be abreast of what’s happening. Practitioners need to determine which technologies they want. Public and private hospitals, as well as other operators, need to be ready to participate in digital transformation.
Thailand’s Digital Economy Readiness
Thailand is advancing toward digital transformation. The move is in line with Thailand’s digital transformation policy - Thailand 4.0. Numerous agencies are gearing up for digital platform adoption and data centres, partly accelerated due to the impact from the pandemic.
Thailand’s Digital Economy and Society (DES) Ministry aims to use a centralised data-sharing platform by 2023 through a public cloud service, which will be embedded with Internet of Things and AI technologies. Accordingly, the government continues to consider the prickly policy issues for handling data privacy issues.
What Are the Uses of AI in Healthcare?
Marketing departments love AI because the possibilities are so sensational. For example, nanobots will enter our system and repair cells so that we can live to be 120 or more. The reality is, however, that AI applications in Thailand and elsewhere will remain narrow for a long while:
- AI tools and applications need to be validated by the Thai FDA and other regulatory authorities
- Health data is sensitive, especially if it is identifiable to patients
- Scalability of adoption is not easy – practitioners must be convinced that the operationalization of AI data is easy, and ultimately that it solves a problem in a superior way
In Thailand, and globally, more people are entering into the ‘elderly’ demographic. Nearly all of them will need medical and ongoing healthcare services. Thailand has respected medical practioners and facilities that can be expanded to include more ongoing process-based healthcare treatment. Thailand’s natural and cultural attributes create a desirable and charming lifestyle destination for the elderly, particularly Westerners who typically suffer through cold climates. Building a healthcare ecosystem that can integrate new technologies will leverage Thailand’s assets, without having to fuss over which technologies will be winners. Focus on the customer, not the technology.
Greg Beatty Bio
Greg Beatty is Canadian with a US law degree. He has worked in Asia for several multinational companies and law firms. He is member of the Advisory Council of Thailand Regional Forum (email@example.com).