Asia-Pacific’s Medical Technology (MedTech) sector is expected to grow from US$88 billion in output in 2015 to US$133 billion by 2020—surpassing the EU to become the world’s second-largest MedTech market. With its government’s push towards becoming a Smart Nation, Singapore is leading the region in MedTech research and development. It is now called home by more than 60 multinational MedTech firms.
Years of data gathering and analysis have also paid off. “Enough data is now available that data analytics can effectively determine cost-effectiveness and where improvements are needed in the local healthcare system,” says Prof Robert Morris, Chief Technology Strategist, Ministry of Health Office for Healthcare Transformation (MOHT).
Here we discuss the major milestones in Singapore’s MedTech industry in 2019, and what we can expect in 2020.
Key Drivers of Growth in Singapore’s MedTech Industry
Leveraging standard-issue devices
Mobile health (mHealth) — the use of mobile technology to monitor and share health information — is seeing increased adoption worldwide. The value of the global mHealth solutions market is expected to leap from US$21.17 billion in 2017 to US$90.49 billion by 2022.
This trend is reflected in Singapore. MedTech companies here are increasingly leveraging devices that people use every day, such as smartphones and smartwatches, to provide medical information and encourage health monitoring.
By leveraging standard-issue devices, MedTech companies can lower the cost of developing, delivering, and scaling their health solutions, according to Prof Morris.
MedTech companies and startups have realised that their solutions must be based on what healthcare professionals and patients need. Design must be developed in consultation with these key stakeholders to make sure the solutions can integrate with current workflows and lifestyles, thus reducing user resistance.
However, that doesn’t mean MedTech solutions won’t require a change in habits or institutional systems. There will certainly be a learning curve involved, especially for healthcare providers.
“[MedTech companies need to] factor in change management of the healthcare team and patients in tech adoption,” says Prof Gerald Koh, Clinical Director, Future Primary Care, MOHT. He recommends having an interdisciplinary team centred around the healthcare staff and patients to help with implementation.
Government funding, academic expertise, a robust startup ecosystem, and cooperation by legacy institutions all help fuel the growth of Singapore’s MedTech industry.
To bridge the gap between R&D and application, the National Research Foundation launched Singapore Health Technologies Consortium (HealthTEC) in 2019 to connect academics and industry partners. The consortium will also provide its members with seed funding for collaboration projects.
We are also seeing increased investor willingness to support early-stage startups in the industry, including overseas companies looking to expand to Asia. In April, SGInnovate named five new co-investors to focus on early-stage Deep Tech startups in various fields, including MedTech.
Major MedTech Milestones in 2019
Increased scale of user-friendly wellness solutions
“Wellness solutions are reaching scale in Singapore,” says Prof Morris. The simplicity of these solutions is one key to adoption, as is the use of standard-issue devices like smartphones and smartwatches. For example, devices that count the number of steps taken in a day only require the user to wear them. They can also be equipped with sensors that detect other factors, such as heart rate, to measure the intensiveness of the user’s activity.
It is also in Singapore’s best interests for these solutions to be simple enough for the elderly to adopt. The country will have 900,000 elderly citizens by 2030, and a low birth rate means there could be a lack of support for this population segment. Wellness solutions can help Singapore’s aged population to stay healthy and maintain their medications.
One example of a simple solution is Health Beacon, a connected device for managing medication. The device acts as a ‘smart sharps bin’ where patients who self-inject medicines at home can toss instruments like hypodermic needles. The medication schedule is digitally programmed into the bin, which then sends reminders to the patient through SMS. It also displays a Personal Adherence Score.
Health Beacon is based in Ireland but is expanding to Asia following an investment by SGInnovate in 2019.
Adoption of home-monitoring solutions
Prof Morris notes an increase in the development and adoption of home-monitoring solutions, albeit at early stages. These solutions allow patients to track factors like blood sugar, weight, and blood pressure without having to visit a clinic or take a lab test.
For instance, Web Biotech’s Spyder Personal is a wearable device that continuously monitors the heart’s electrical activity to detect infrequent abnormal heart rhythms. The device sends the data to the user’s mobile phone; this can then be forwarded to a physician.
Experiments with AI-driven technology
With MedTech solutions increasingly relying on data, AI has become indispensable to the industry, according to Deloitte. Investor activity supports this notion; global investment in healthcare AI companies amounted to almost US$1.6 billion in Q3 2019 alone.
In MedTech, AI is deployed for descriptive and predictive analytics, chatbots for wellness coaching, and imaging analysis. Singapore-based KroniKare, for example, enables the almost-instant, non-invasive assessment of chronic wounds with the use of an AI-enabled scanning device. The device’s AI system measures the wound and evaluates it against 15 years of chronic wound data. It then generates an automatic report that healthcare practitioners can use as a basis for determining suitable treatment.
“AI in Health is typically predicted to be felt first in imaging, and Singapore is ahead of the curve in retinal imaging through the Singapore National Eye Centre,” says Prof Morris. However, with limited approval of AI-based medical devices, MedTech startups now have a better appreciation of regulatory barriers, which can affect product development.
What to Expect in 2020
This year, MedTech stakeholders will increase their focus on disease management and mental health. This comes as no surprise given the growing elderly population and the increased prevalence of mental disorders.
A study by the Institute of Mental Health revealed that while “one in seven people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime,” a majority did not seek out professional help. MedTech solutions can provide personalised assessment and advice through devices, enabling people to avoid the discomfort of a face-to-face session.
Meanwhile, talent for the development of Deep Tech solutions continues to be scarce. Although Singapore has a relatively high proportion of AI talent on a global scale, they tend to focus on Education, Software & IT Services, Hardware & Networking, Manufacturing, and Finance, according to research by LinkedIn.
Privacy also remains a major concern. For instance, digital phenotyping, an increasingly popular solution, requires the continuous collection and analysis of data about the user’s interaction with digital devices, such as smartphones and wearables. This information is then used to assess the person’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
This presents an obvious privacy conundrum. For digital phenotyping apps to work well and assess a person holistically, they need to access various smartphone activities, such as communication, social networking, and even the use of eCommerce and productivity apps.
Data security concerns are another challenge. But in 2020, we can expect more secure data usage and policies among Singapore MedTech companies following the adoption of the Public Sector Data Security Review Committee (PSDSRC) recommendations, according to Prof Morris.
Focus on Users Before Tech
If there is one thing the industry has learned from pilot tests in 2019, such as the MOHT’s tele-health pilot on hypertension management at Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic, it’s that user-centric design is key to adoption, says Ms Ng Ling Ling, Director (Community Engagement) & Head (Future Primary Care), MOHT. “The tech serves the patient and healthcare team, not the other way around,” she adds.
This includes the consideration of user demographics, such as age. “Understanding the elderly’s concerns on use of smartphones, troubleshooting, low-cost access and data plans are all important practical considerations for smartphone- and app-based healthcare digitalisation,” says Ms Ng.
Such insights are a sign that Singapore’s MedTech scene is moving forward, as these lessons help make products scalable and user-friendly.
To learn more about Singapore’s burgeoning MedTech scene and identify the companies driving it forward, keep an eye on SGInnovate’s investment portfolio.
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