Stay healthy and hi-tech

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2000, 12:00am

Every day at 6.30am, Eliot Carter starts the day by walking into the kitchen for his morning medical scan. He inserts his right forefinger into a digital terminal to ascertain his blood pressure and circulation. He places a light-weight probe under his tongue for an instant temperature and viral antibody reading. His saliva is sampled for a rapid nutritional analysis of yesterday's food and liquid intake.

'Eliot, your physical state is a little sluggish this morning,' says Dr Franklin Thomas sympathetically, addressing Mr Carter from the kitchen's info window, the instant-on Internet portal that dishes up information on demand to American families.

Dr Thomas has detected a slight viral infection and incomplete digestion of yesterday's meals, which Mr Carter would later describe as 'a little too rich'.

Dr Thomas immediately prescribes a single dose of Vivafre, the latest in a line of genetically aligned antiviral agents that eradicate colds in two hours. He also suggests Eetwel, an enzyme-based digestive, and designs a meal plan to maximise Mr Carter's limited energy over the next 24 hours.

The above is a portrayal of what is going to happen in the year 2015 in healthcare, by Jeannie Mandelker for PricewaterhouseCoopers' (PWC) Global Pharmaceutical Practice. According to this forecast, by 2015 virtual health agents such as the one described will screen consumers to treat all illness, major or minor.

Dr Thomas is not real a doctor; he is a personification of Mr Carter's health agent - Maximum Health Inc, a hypothetical company now but one expected to become a reality and play the role of monitoring the daily health of one million subscribers worldwide.

Maximum Health could be just one of the handful of health agents expected to emerge in the early 2010s. It would attract numerous single subscribers willing to pay US$15,000 a year for daily medical advice and diagnosis.

The prospects for e-healthcare agents such as the hypothetical Maximum Health in the coming years are unlimited. Forester Research estimates the total US e-health market projected for the year 2003 would be about $370 billion.

A dozen Web sites have emerged in the US in the past few years. They offer medical benefit even to Asian users as consumers get on the Net to learn about developments in multiple sclerosis or breast cancer from portals such as Yahoo!health, Healtheon and CNN-Health.

However, the language barrier may get in the way: the majority of Asians do not read English. Even if they do, they may prefer to resort to a traditional herbalist for a flu remedy rather than line up at a hospital for two hours, only to be dispensed a handful of antibiotics.

The prospects for Asia look extremely bright. Based on the PWC research, the market is growing at a rate of 11 per cent a year, the highest in the world. At this rate, the pharmaceuticals market in the region will be the biggest by 2020.

There is no doubt there is a demand for health-related Web sites with local content and in local languages, and the smart people have started to cash in on the trend.

HealthAnswers International, a US medical-information provider, is planning a local listing. Quality HealthCare, the only listed health-care group in Hong Kong, and Tung Fong Hung, a herbal and dry food product company, are aiming to offer Chinese and Asians health solutions rooted in tradition.

Despite the fever over Internet launches, there is scepticism as to whether the biggest winner of the Internet development of healthcare will be consumers, who are dying for the magical cure, or shrewd businessmen who got on the Internet wagon quickly.

'The current business model is to develop portals, trying to sell advertisements to the target group and selling advertised products,' said Alisha Work, a senior consultant of PricewaterhouseCoopers's management consulting services. 'If you look at those sites, there is really not much there, at least not yet.

'I suspect there will be some consolidation later. Only those that provide the good content, those tailored to customers' needs, will win in this competitive field.' While e-commerce is transforming global business, companies in Asia are facing a number of obstacles in adapting this technology.

Most of them are structural, including the lack of supporting infrastructure, such as credit assessment and authorisation systems, and poor legal structure to protect consumers.

There are also cultural barriers. Language difference is seen as less of a challenge than the difference in philosophy and medical systems.

'The Chinese herbology is seen as a national pride,' said Ms Work. 'Even the young generation believes and understands it.' There is also a danger that the freedom of the Internet could expose consumers to misleading information.

'Consumers should check on the credibility of the people behind [the Web site] and the source of information,' Brian O'Connor, chairman of Quality HealthCare Asia, said at the recent launch of its healthcare portal

The Internet field is in its infancy and there are no laws and regulations to protect consumers.

'The government is basically working in a reactionary manner,' said Ms Work. 'The legislative process is still operating at the traditional pace, while the Internet is happening at the speed of light.' Because privacy laws were not developed in Asia, it was important for customers to be careful about what they bought over the Internet; about giving out credit-card numbers; and about releasing personal information to portals they were not familiar with.