Once considered a technology laggard, the healthcare sector is moving with the times.
In the Asia-Pacific region, healthcare institutions are adopting IT as a means to reduce healthcare costs and provide better patient care.
According to IDC, IT spending by the region's healthcare sector has reached about US$6 billion, and is expected to grow 5 percent to top US$7 billion by 2011.
Victor Lim, vice president for IDC's Asia-Pacific consulting operations, told ZDNet Asia that the largest healthcare IT markets are Japan, Australia and China. However, growth is uneven across the region, with India and China posting the fastest growth rates.
Regional healthcare IT spending is driven by several factors, including the need for organizations to upgrade their healthcare services to meet international standards, and the increasing focus of governments to upgrade their healthcare industry as part of a strategy to boost national competitiveness.
Lim said hospitals are also leveraging technology to leapfrog several steps of development, while today's tech-savvy consumers are demanding better healthcare and customer services.
"Factors that drive the adoption of technology are mainly the ICT sophistication of their citizens, who in turn expect their government and healthcare providers to catch up with them in terms of technology usage," explained the IDC analyst.
But, also driving IT spending is the scarcity of talent and rising healthcare personnel costs "which are pushing hospitals to turn to automation", Lim added, as well as the ongoing drive to reduce diagnosis and prescriptive errors.
Another reason why several countries are investing more heavily in IT is to better compete for the medical tourist dollar.
Jonathan Silber, a senior analyst with Springboard Research, told ZDNet Asia: "Medical tourism is also attracting considerable IT investment as many countries are hoping to emerge as regional medical hubs for international patients.
"Hong Kong, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, among others, are taking calculated steps in the race to grab the largest slice out of the medical tourism pie," he added.
Staying ahead of the curve
Innovative applications are being implemented in various healthcare institutions across the Asia-Pacific region, but developed nations appear to be steps ahead of their counterparts in the developing world.
Lim said: "The developed countries like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are leading the countries in the region, although selected hospitals in Malaysia and Thailand have [in place] showcase systems."
Springboard Research had a similar market assessment. Silber noted: "In comparing countries, you see the more advanced ones investing more in healthcare technology and implementing more of the latest technologies, with New Zealand probably being the most cutting edge, followed by the likes of Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea."
"Countries like Australia and New Zealand are years, if not decades, ahead of countries like the Philippines and Indonesia," he said. "This is reflected not only in the quality or access of treatment across the continuum of care, but also in terms of the state of healthcare IT investment."
"Looking at more emerging markets, we have seen Malaysia doing some interesting things, as well as the giants of India and China investing more in their healthcare infrastructure," Silber added.
Indeed, healthcare institutions are willing to explore new areas.
For example, National Healthcare Group (NHG) in Singapore, which won ZDNet Asia's Public Sector Project of the Year award last year, plans to further improve patient safety through IT.
Linus Tham, CIO of NHG, told ZDNet Asia that the plans include putting in electronic checks at medication administration and streamlining the process for laboratory specimen taking, which will mostly be done using mobile technology and bar codes.
NHG is also looking into how it can make use of SMS and mobile phones to alert doctors of critical results that require immediate attention and follow-up.
"All of these are being built on top of the electronic order entry which we have rolled out to our polyclinics, National University Hospital and Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH)," Tham said.
"In addition, we are looking into how else we can use RFID after the successful rollout at TTSH for patient movement tracking and bed management."