How Soon Will Your Doctor Be Replaced By An App?
In September, Amazon launched a virtual health service for its employees in Seattle, with some commentators saying it could be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' first step in the company's foray into the healthcare market. The new service, called Amazon Care, is an app that lets employees speak to doctors or nurses over video calls or text chats. It can also prescribe medication and provides visits from “mobile care nurses” to employees’ homes and offices.
The app serves Amazon employees today. But will it, and others like it, serve the world tomorrow? Quite possibly.
In Asia, one of the entrepreneurs at the forefront of the digitisation of healthcare is Gen.T honouree Saxon Chen. In his home city of Taipei, Chen led the transition towards smart healthcare measurement and health data analysis at Foxconn, the world’s largest provider of electronics manufacturing services.
Riding high on that success, he led the launch of the H2U Health ATM, a smart physical check-up facility, across 7-Eleven stores in Taiwan. The devices work like an ATM machine, providing on-demand smart health management services and data analysis to patients. The devices are soon to be launched in mainland China, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
At no charge, H2U Health ATMs provide measurements of blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate and BMI. Users can store the data on their smartphones or download apps to store them on the cloud. So far, H2U machines have been installed at 100 7-Eleven stores in Taiwan, so customers can pop in for a snack, a soda water and a check-up. Lives have been saved by people hopping onto the machine before they catch the bus and realising that their blood pressure or BMI needs urgent attention.
Not content with his healthcare ATMs, Chen also founded Asia’s largest biomedical accelerator, H.Spectrum, in 2018. A venture capital network for healthcare start-ups and entrepreneurs, it helps existing healthcare providers scale up, and start-ups to take their first steps towards success.
As a result, anyone in Taiwan who is getting medical feedback anywhere other than a hospital or a doctor’s office, is probably using a company Chen has helped build.
“Well, yes,” he says, with a laugh on the phone from Taipei. “When it comes to digital healthcare in Taiwan, I am definitely helping a lot. Nearly 80 percent of people in the country have accessed medical help using my platforms. So yes, it feels good.”
While pilot projects like Amazon Care sound impressive, they are still small-scale. How much has the healthcare industry actually changed in the last few years? And is it set to transform in the decade ahead? “It is changing fast, and not just because of tech,” he replies, after a pause, so he can measure out his words carefully.
“Although obviously tech is a big factor. I think nowadays, people really are looking forward to healthier lives, and want to control their own health more than they ever have before. In healthcare that personal control will be so important. Before people would look for doctors to provide all the answers, but now the mindset has really changed, and people want to look out for themselves and know what is happening internally and how to prevent greater illness. That’s why the healthcare platforms we believe in are all about empowering people to understand their own health. Knowledge is power, and all that.”
Chen himself studied bio-chemistry and currently lives in Taipei with his wife and two children, all of whom use his HTU machines for regular check-ups. And while he thinks his kids will most likely be seeing robotic doctors in 40 years’ time, he doesn’t believe the future is quite a close as we think.
I think nowadays, people really are looking forward to healthier lives, and want to control their own health more than they ever have before. In healthcare that personal control will be so important. Before people would look for doctors to provide all the answers, but now the mindset has really changed, and people want to look out for themselves
— Saxon Chen
In terms of AI, we have already taken the first, tentative steps towards using machine learning-based diagnoses. IBM Watson—a question answering computer system—can now pinpoint treatments for cancer patients, and Google Cloud's Healthcare app that makes it easier for health organisations to collect, store, and access data. How long will it take before this is the norm?
“Everything is moving towards AI, so of course it is coming to the healthcare industry,” says Chen. “And with the right technology, it could be really helpful. Lots of big pharma companies are using it already, although I think that anyone developing those devices needs to realise how important it is to educate the people first. If they understand what they’re talking about, they’ll be happier to rely on tech.”
And what about those robots in white coats? “I think the healthcare industry will automated but only in the distant future,” he says. “Maybe in 20 years’ time? In the next 10 years, we will need doctors because they’re the ones who understand customers, and they will therefore be more efficient. Healthcare is not only about a set of symptoms: it’s a lot more complex than that.”