Before the pandemic, the notion of going for a medical consultation over the phone or video seemed cold and impersonal; antithetical to the practice of medicine even, as telehealth seemingly removes one of the most integral components of healthcare – doctor-patient interaction.
John Hopkins Medical School’s first chief of medicine, Sir William Osler, famously once said: “The practice of medicine is an art based on science.” In a profession that relies as heavily on the art of engaging patients as it does evidence-based information, it was hard for many to fathom that moving in-person consultations online would be able to provide the same standard and quality of care.
Such scepticism over telehealth was what Lim Wai Mun, founder and CEO of telehealth provider Doctor Anywhere faced in the start-up’s early years. “Nobody believed it,” he says.
Lim came up with the idea for the company in 2016 while distributing lunchboxes to seniors living in older housing estates. Struck by how immobile seniors could not leave their homes and receive basic healthcare, he wanted a solution that could provide accessible, affordable, and quality healthcare for everyone.
In a post-pandemic world, telemedicine has become widely accepted – sought after, even, as people eschew the long waiting times of visits to the clinics. Back in 2017 when Doctor Anywhere was set up, however, Lim says “there was a lot of rejection from payers, patients, and the providers on the need for such a service”.
“We realized that consumers were hesitant to entrust such a personal aspect like health to an online provider,” he recalls. “We had to rethink our business model.”.
Doctor Anywhere adopted what Lim calls an “omnichannel approach” – opening physical clinics that bore the Doctor Anywhere name and building its brand name at events and roadshows. The approach gained traction, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that it gained widespread adoption.
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In early 2022, Doctor Anywhere was appointed the healthcare provider for the pilot program that facilitated supervised Covid-19 antigen rapid tests (ART) as part of pre-departure and arrival screenings. In the first week of its launch, about 1,000 people used the tele-consultation service.
In Lim’s opinion, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of telemedicine by “at least five years”.
“We have tens of thousands of users who started on the DA journey via the virtual ART solution, and we see more than 50 per cent of them coming back to use us for other services. Thanks to the pandemic, telehealth has become commonplace today.”
- CHANGING NEEDS
- RENEWED PURPOSE
Late last year, the Ministry of Health announced its plans for Healthier SG, a nationwide healthcare reform plan that will shift focus from reactively caring for those who are already sick, to proactively preventing individuals from falling ill. For the public, it means that they will be encouraged to take charge of health at an earlier age to improve their long-term quality of life.
According to Lim, with consumers gaining more awareness of the importance of their health, there is a “shift from simply seeking treatment for illnesses, towards more preventive measures”. “Telemedicine itself will need to constantly evolve to keep up with changing needs,” he says.
For Doctor Anywhere, it means having to provide a greater range of holistic services and offerings to support patients across every stage of health – from prevention, to treatment, recovery, and wellness. Beyond regular medical consultations, consumers can now purchase healthy snacks and nutritional supplements, or sign up for home-based health screening and vaccination services. There are now even chiropractic, mental wellness, and contraceptives subscription services.
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In December 2022, Doctor Anywhere expanded its range of healthcare offerings to include secondary care through the acquisition of Asian Healthcare Specialists, a healthcare provider with specialities in orthopaedics, ophthalmology, dermatology, urology, gastroenterology, otorhinolaryngology, anaesthesia, family medicine, and rehabilitation.
It’s a move necessitated by fast-rising healthcare challenges, including ageing populations and a rise in chronic diseases, says Lim. “This acquisition will enable us to deliver a more holistic healthcare offering, to meet the rising demand for complex, specialised treatment across Southeast Asia.”
Aligned with its own stance on being proactive, Doctor Anywhere recently embarked on a three-year partnership with soap brand Lifebuoy, with the intention of reaching one million Singapore residents with content educating on the importance of preventive care. It also aims to increase access to preventive care resources and services for 10,000 Singaporeans in need and provide access to new preventive care digital health risks assessments, services, and resources.
The partnership held its first community event at Jalan Besar Community Club last November, which provided over 120 health screenings and included a dedicated fun fair for children to learn about handwashing and hygiene.
- CHANGING NEEDS
- RENEWED PURPOSE
Doctor Anywhere isn’t Lim’s first foray into uncertain territories. Before he embarked on his start-up career, he spent close to a decade at Temasek Holdings, where he was involved in the conceptualization and establishment of Pavilion Energy, a Singapore-based liquefied natural gas company that held significant stakes in the global energy market – experience that came in handy as he led a small team to not only navigate early choppy waters, but eventually thrive and grow.
In just over five years, Doctor Anywhere has expanded regionally to five other locations in Southeast Asia – namely Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, and Indonesia – with over 600 employees running operations.
Today, Doctor Anywhere boasts about 3,000 general practitioners and specialists within its regional network and reaches out to 2.5 million users across the six countries via telehealth and physical clinics. In Singapore alone, nine physical Doctor Anywhere clinics cater to those who prefer a face-to-face appointment. In recognition of Doctor Anywhere’s contributions to the healthcare sector, Lim was named the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2022 Singapore.
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While the number of telehealth companies is now growing, Lim says Doctor Anywhere remains the “only healthcare company with a meaningful local presence across a few countries within ASEAN”. It puts the company in a good position to build upon expansion plans into the region, to “build a digital healthcare ecosystem that enables better patient outcomes and help shape the future of healthcare in Southeast Asia”.
Says Lim: “Integrating Asian Healthcare Specialists within the Doctor Anywhere group is a key step that strengthens our capabilities beyond our successful primary care services. We hope to acquire more healthcare companies to join us on our journey to building the largest healthcare ecosystem in Southeast Asia.”
As Doctor Anywhere grows rapidly, the company is still very much anchored by its original vision of providing accessible, affordable, and quality healthcare for everyone – albeit now at a much greater scale.
“We’ll hopefully be able to eradicate unnecessary pain or mortality because the world is connected and patients are matched with the most appropriate healthcare provider or solution, with healthcare financing efficiently allocated by both the private and public space to optimize spending by the whole healthcare ecosystem.”
Lim concludes, “In an ideal world within the healthcare space, there will not be any barriers to access healthcare – not based on where you reside and the language that you speak, nor the size of your wallet.”