BANGKOK/SINGAPORE -- A young doctor donning headphones sits in front of a row of monitors at Samitivej Hospital in Bangkok, preparing to attend to a mask-wearing patient on one of the screens.
"Hello. What seems to be the problem?" says the physician during the call last month.
Calls like these are becoming more common in Asia as telemedicine sees its popularity soar during the coronavirus pandemic. The region has long been a latent market for such innovation due to the disparate development of health care systems, making access to medical services uneven.
Samitivej, part of a chain under the local health care group Bangkok Dusit Medical Services (BDMS), launched the online service in March last year. Samitivej Virtual Hospital, accessed from a one-stop smartphone app, is now a round-the-clock operation staffed by 380 physicians.
Patients first tell a nurse their symptoms via video call, then an attending physician takes over for a thorough interview. After the video examination, the doctor uploads a diagnosis report. The prescription can be delivered to the patient's residence or an office within 90 minutes.
A 15-minute session costs 500 baht ($15.80). Through the use of miniature diagnostic equipment, patients can also have their heart rate, breathing and throat checked remotely. Blood testing from home is also supported.
"The usage has surged compared to before the novel coronavirus," says a Samitivej representative. "We've even helped many Thais who are in western countries."
The global telehealth market is poised to reach $25.4 billion this year, according to Indian research firm Markets and Markets. With growth projected to average 17% a year, the market is forecast to swell to $55.6 billion in 2025.
The practice is expected to expand the most in the Asia-Pacific region, where many countries field few doctors per capita. While Japan has 24.1 doctors for every 10,000 people, according to the World Health Organization, Thailand only has eight doctors per 10,000 despite Bangkok's reputation as a destination for medical tourism.
This has given rise to regional disparities in access to health care. Against that backdrop, hospitals across the region have started adopting telemedicine.
IHH Healthcare, a Malaysian group that runs 77 hospitals worldwide, started providing online doctor visits last month in Malaysia, Singapore and six other markets. IHH has funded a telehealth startup as well to gain the company's expertise.
"Consumers want from every service the same thing. For the service to be better, faster, easier to access. And actually they want it to be cheaper too," says Kelvin Loh, managing director and chief executive officer CEO at IHH Healthcare.
In India, startup mfine has developed a telehealth platform that utilizes artificial intelligence. A patient can simply describe symptoms over the phone, such as "my stomach hurts" or "I have a fever." The AI chooses a matching specialist, who will make the final determination of the illness.
The world's biggest lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus has boosted traffic to mfine. The platform now handles 10,000 cases a day, quadruple the number from early March.
Since the start of the pandemic, 50 more hospitals have started adopting mfine, making for a total of about 300 clients. Many more hospitals wish to join the mfine network, says CEO Prasad Kompalli, who sees the list growing to 1,000 by the end of summer.
Virtual hospital providers have extended their services across borders. BDMS has partnered with Chinese platform Ping An Good Doctor, launching a joint operation at the end of last year. The service allows patients in China to receive consultation from Thai doctors.
BDMS plans to expand to Indonesia, where remote islets present a challenge to health care accessibility.
"The key is good partners," said Buranut Limjitti, senior vice president of BDMS. "We are now talking with (Indonesia online medical startups) Halodoc and Alodokter."
But such overseas forays present their share of complications. "When providing services in another country, there is no clear statutes or uniform consensus on whether to follow the regulations enacted in the doctor's or the patient's home country," says Daisuke Fujie, representative attorney at GVA Law Office (Thailand).
Regarding the tie-up with Ping An Good Doctor, a BDMS representative says that process and procedures follow the local regulations.