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Online road to recovery

Healthtech startups are keen to make a difference in moving Vietnam's struggling healthcare and medical services sector forward.

By Hong Nhung

Offline-to-online (O2O) healthcare technology (healthtech) startup Med247 secured an undisclosed amount of investment a few months ago from the KK Fund, a venture capital (VC) firm that primarily invests in seed-stage internet and mobile startups in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong (China), and Taiwan (China). The seed funding has been used to focus on launching Med247’s physical clinics and further develop its clinic management platform.

Although Vietnam’s healthtech sector remains far behind Singapore and Indonesia’s, according to figures from the Health Care Index released by US magazine CEOWorld, the local market has nonetheless seen growing interest in investment, with many startups in medical technology (medtech), including eDoctor, Jio Health, and BuyMed having successfully raised funding in recent times.

Digital healthcare services

Med247 is an offline clinic to online healthcare app service startup that facilitates app-based post-treatment after offline visits to its clinic in Vietnam. Founded in the hope of helping to improve healthcare delivery in fast-growing Vietnam, Med247 has an app available for patients to make appointments on-site, which helps cut waiting times and facilitates online consultation, access to medical records and lab results, and, later on, e-prescriptions.

Since opening in July, Med247 has had more than 5,000 users on the app, with more than 2,000 patients visiting its first clinic in the first two months, for growth of 35 per cent month-on-month in both offline and online users. Over 50 per cent of users converted from online to offline and 6 per cent converted from offline to online. “We were paperless from day one, with our treatment process fully digitalized, from bookings to receiving medication and lab results,” said Mr. Truong Vu Tuan, Co-founder and CEO of Med247. “Forty per cent of customers make bookings prior to coming in for health checks, helping us optimize our resources and reduce waiting times to a maximum of five minutes.”

Another O2O healthcare tech startup, Jio Heath, bagged $5 million in Series A financing in April led by VC fund Monk’s Hill Ventures. It plans to use the proceeds to further expand its suite of services and meet its growth expectations. Founded in 2014, the company leverages technology to provide affordable and on-demand healthcare services, including home doctor visits, nursing care, telemedicine, and access to digital medical records. It now plans to expand its care provider team and clinical operations across Vietnam.

Likewise, Singapore’s Doctor Anywhere, which only set up a base in Vietnam in the third quarter of this year, has already achieved important milestones as a new player in the country’s rapidly-developing healthtech industry. For instance, it has successfully set up initial healthcare infrastructure in the two major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with two clinics and two pharmacies and more in the pipeline in the coming months. It also established an extensive network of allied hospitals and clinics, pharmacies, and qualified doctors in the two cities.

Two months ago, Doctor Anywhere Vietnam became the first healthtech company in the country to be able to include its video consultation services - powered by the Doctor Anywhere app - into the list of insured medical services for all of Bao Minh Insurance’s customers in Vietnam, and the coverage also extends to drug prescriptions and referrals resulting from the video consultation. “We are also in discussions with various large corporations on developing programs that have an impact on a national scale,” said Mr. Nguyen Thanh Phan, CEO of Doctor Anywhere Vietnam.

Fledgling market

Vietnam’s healthtech startup scene has seen exponential growth since early this year, attracting three investments from a pool and rounding out the Top 3 sector in investment attraction, following fintech and e-commerce, in January, according to data from e27. Investors’ increasing concern is vital for the continued development of healthcare service platforms and will allow further development of healthtech startups, which are divided into three categories: diagnosis / examination, medical data management, and medical sales or product platforms.

Healthcare in Southeast Asia is transforming from a traditional approach, where it is a privilege, into modern a life service as GDP rises and the population ages. Developments in the world of science and IT have vast potential to ease the pressure on traditional practices and revolutionize the healthcare system in the region, making it more responsive to patient needs. Not only does it simplify patient access, it also makes it easier for healthcare professionals to deliver.

However, as indicated by Vietnam standing at 66th out of 89 economies in global healthcare rankings this year, well behind most of its Southeast Asian peers, the country suffers from a lack of basic care and top-quality general practitioners, especially in remote areas. This provides a chance for mobile medicine to grow much higher than other regional markets, according to Mr. Tuan from Med247. He strongly believes that Vietnam’s O2O healthcare market will truly open up in the next two or three years and be strongly competitive in the three years afterwards, once users become educated about using the technology for good healthcare.

Vietnam’s healthcare spending is estimated to increase from $16.1 billion in 2017 to almost $20 billion by 2020, according to KPMG. Even with such forecasts, according to a 2016 report from the World Bank, Vietnam has only 72 doctors per 100,000 citizens, compared to Singapore’s 230. About 80 per cent of Vietnam’s primary care clinics are situated in homes and waiting times for medical consultations at hospitals are an hour at best, which leaves the country in dire need of basic healthcare delivery.

Indeed, according to data from the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO), there is an estimated shortage of 4 million doctors and nearly 30,000 hospitals across Asia. Like its neighbors, Vietnam faces a crunch in its healthcare ecosystem in terms of providing sufficient and timely medical attention to people in need, especially in Tier 2 and 3 cities. 

This is an issue that technology is able to address. Healthcare tech startups in Vietnam were established with a mission of providing users with convenient, accessible, and quality healthcare services. “As technology is growing very quickly, evolution and change will continue in the traditional medical and healthcare system and the true potential for new technologies in healthcare is to level the playing field for patients and enhance the ability of physicians to deliver safe and effective care,” said Ms. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Huyen, CEO of Medlink, a healthtech platform for direct connectivity among drug suppliers and pharmacies.

Changing mindsets

Vietnam is very much in the very early stages of digitalized healthcare. “Systems being used in large hospitals are not standardized and are fragmented, while clinics are not using any systems at all,” Mr. Tuan said. “What we are trying to do is using technology to build standardized operating procedures (SOP) in order to help scale up our healthcare services nationwide. Medical practice in Vietnam follows the traditional model, where it’s doctor and hospital-centric. We want to reimagine healthcare, whereby it becomes patient-centric, empowering patients with our technology platform and helping them to always be connected with our medical professionals.”

The country has also experienced a quadrupling of per capita GDP in the last ten years, making forays into healthtech even more timely for startups. By connecting all the different parties participating in delivering healthcare on an end-to-end basis, and encouraging them collaborate together, Doctor Anywhere can bridge the existing huge gap between users on one side and doctors and healthcare and medical service providers on the other, and ultimately delivering better healthcare solutions to the Vietnamese people. 

However, one of the biggest challenges healthtech startups face is in changing the mindsets of local people, according to Mr. Phan from Doctor Anywhere. “Many Vietnamese are used to seeing a doctor at a physical clinic,” he explained. “The idea of a digital alternative, where they can see a qualified doctor online, is something that many of them, especially the older generation, are hesitant to do. But as with any new innovation, we understand that consistency is key to establishing credibility, building trust, and raising awareness by educating local patients on the conveniences and reliability of digital healthcare services.” Using technology will enable customers to be in more direct conversation with healthcare providers and gain easy access to the medical services they need. 

Another huge challenge, according to Ms. Huyen from Medlink, is the lack of qualifications and skills in using medical technology devices. “In order to expand networks and boost digitalization in Vietnam’s healthcare services sector, there is a need to educate patient behavior,” she said. “As digitalization has tremendous benefits and wellness for Vietnam’s population, healthtech startups should strive towards a clear vision where every Vietnamese can have immediate access to quality digital healthcare services.”

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