Thailand’s healthcare industry is racked with one too many challenges and roadblocks. Just think back to your last visit at the doctor’s, where you most likely sat and waited aimlessly for your queue to get a quick check up, then walk out confused about the THB 4,000 medical bill you have just received.
This is why the market opportunity for healthcare is so vast, with innovators across the globe tackling the sector from every angle, and demand is surging even more amid a global pandemic.
That’s not to say online healthcare services don’t face challenges. We sat down with Raya ‘Ten’ Chantaramungkorn, co-founder and CMO of Bangkok based HD to talk about everything from their business model to the challenges and opportunities in Thailand’s healthcare system.
The HD platform consists of HD.co.th, an online health information portal and interactive community for patients to chat with healthcare professionals and HDmall.co.th, an online marketplace offering thousands of packages for in-person medical services and treatments from leading clinics and hospitals.
HD.co.th offers an online doctor consultation concierge service for users, particularly popular with those who wish to ask personal questions without the fear or embarrassment of being judged.
HDmall.co.th is the largest health, dental and medical beauty online marketplace in Thailand, offering over 4,000 types of services across 500 partners. It also has a presence in Indonesia, putting it in a select group of Thai startups that have managed to scale regionally such as aCommerce and Pomelo.
Currently, 60% of HD’s traffic comes from Bangkok, followed by Chonburi and Chiangmai.
Born Out of Personal Frustrations
While working at aCommerce, Southeast Asia’s largest ecommerce enabler with headquarters in Bangkok and slated for a 2021 IPO, Ten saw firsthand the challenges that hospitals faced in adopting to our new digital age.
“We worked with several providers in the Thai healthcare space and many of them lacked the talent and culture to move their business online,” recounts Ten.
Frustrated with the slow progress and lack of open-mindedness, but well aware of the huge opportunity, Ten decided to start HD alongside several other co-founders.
“When we first started a few years back, there were little to no startups solely focused on helping hospitals and clinics but ironically, these are the businesses that actually need the most help.”
That was before the Covid pandemic obviously. While 2020 has fast-tracked digital adoption in the healthcare space, there are still many challenges that remain to be solved.
Tackling Thailand’s Healthcare Challenges
Take any healthcare system, and think about the regulation, red tape and the slow moving units like any public sector.
“Regulation is definitely a key barrier to Thailand’s healthcare sector, but it is important to have regulations in place for safety and procedure reasons,” says Ten.
Digitization is the key to innovation and change. When people talk about innovation, they are almost always referring to trimming the fat in processes, downsizing headcount and improving efficiency. These things can only be achieved through technology.
We ask Ten about the two biggest gaps in Thailand’s healthcare market. Her reply? affordability and accessibility.
There is a 9% year-on-year expense inflation in Thailand’s healthcare sector since 2014, more so than other APAC countries. What does this mean? Most people struggle with access to affordable healthcare, particularly when Thailand’s economic growth has remained stagnant, and now facing a struggling economy amid fighting a global pandemic.
“We aim to tackle this problem by driving promotions which are more affordable for our users, as well as promote price transparency,” says Ten. “When some partners see that their competitors are lowering prices, they follow in order to remain competitive. The customer wins.”
HDmall.co.th also touches on the accessibility factors for users. Digitized healthcare means that consumers have the ability to research independently before deciding on treatment. HD’s community and content driven platform allows for users to understand different types of services with information transparency at the click of a button.
“Users can benefit from our online concierge service, similarly to walking into a hospital front desk without even leaving their rooms. They can make the decision to do a treatment privately, after collecting all the facts,” says Ten.
The Pandemic Effect
Dating back to the first emergence of Covid-19 at the beginning of 2020, there wasn’t a lot people knew about the virus and hence, were scared to go to hospitals. This actually validates HD’s online consultation service, as it eliminates the need to leave your house.
During the first wave, HD acted as an information center for Covid-19. Aside from providing refunds and extending coupon expiry dates, they also actively provided safety guidelines and measures as well as feedback from patients that visited hospitals or clinics.
Last year’s first lockdown and resulting work-from-home policies also led to an increase in usage of HD’s period tracker app, several of the free-to-use mini apps inside the main HD mobile app.
“We saw an increase in period tracker mini app users during the lockdown period, indicating increased sexual activity and more couples trying to conceive,” Ten explained.
Private hospitals in Bangkok had to also adapt from being the center of medical tourism, to finding local customers. Stuck with excess capacity, many have repositioned themselves for local patients and reached out to HD to help get more distribution.
“We’ve seen a shift towards more cash payments as unfortunately many people have lost their jobs or faced salary reductions. Cash pay patients are more price sensitive and customer experience sensitive and this is where our value add comes in. There’s also an increase on the supply side from hospitals, and we’re currently onboarding partners at a faster rate due to the loss of revenues at hospitals from the lack of medical tourism,” says Ten.
HD has also noted some behavioral changes during the second wave. Firstly? Beauty and self care cannot wait. Some people anticipated the possibility of a lockdown, and feared that beauty clinics will have to close down, hence the surge in demand for services such as botox and fillers as they work from home.
As the pandemic continues to spread across Thailand, it’s no surprise that the demand for Covid-19 tests are on the rise. HD has captured this growing demand; currently, the platform offers Covid-19 packages from 11 partners, both rapid tests and PCR in private hospitals and via drive thru.
People who want to get tested in Thailand would normally have to wait for hours and in that time, potentially be exposed to other sick people.
“Private hospitals and labs offer more convenience for people. You only end up paying a bit more, but the convenience and safety factor is there,” says Ten. “You also don’t have to wait too long to get results.”
“Some of our partners really want to push people in red zones to get tested for free. Some hospitals require you to fill out forms before getting tested, so we saved time for prospective patients by allowing people to chat with our admin before purchasing. There is also the option to pay in monthly installments.”
Covid-19 tests aside, HD have also noticed a surge in routine check ups and procedures during the year end.
“What we saw in December was also a heightened demand for end of year things, like general check ups, dental services like retainer fitting and teeth cleaning as well as facial lasers,” says Ten.
Making fundamental changes take time, and fostering the online community as well as developing closer relationships with their hospital and clinic partners will lead to more things for HD in the future.
What’s next for the startup? Expansion, expansion, expansion.
“We’re planning to dive deeper into more categories in Bangkok,” says Ten. “Aside from that, we’re also looking to expand into tier 2 & 3 cities.”
For many tech companies, they often look to capture Bangkok due to its population density, resources and the most obvious thing; spending power. This was also the case when HD launched first in Bangkok.
Healthcare services are expensive, especially when you are trying to sell nice to have packages for beauty clinics. Nevertheless, they want to capture the opportunity beyond the capital city, in order to offer people increased range and access to different medical treatments.
“HD is also looking to expand into selling surgery packages. Interestingly, we’ve had feedback from a user that bought a birthing package from HDmall the morning before delivery! We’d like to expand this category with the help of our partners,” says Ten.
Collaboration is key to HD’s reach and success, with so many moving parts to the segment, it’s necessary to have the partners on their side. HD is planning to leverage their insights to work with hospitals and clinics to further come up with targeted products and services.
Ultimately, the goal for HD is to continue to capture as many potential customers as possible and to ease the various pain points within the healthcare system. If the pandemic has taught us anything in the past year, it is the importance of technology in healthcare; improving accessibility, price and process will go beyond nice to have in the near future.