By Brian Hamilton, President of Hippo Technologies, Inc.
Latin America remains an untapped market when it comes to virtual healthcare offerings. Nearly 25% of the world’s hospitals are in this emerging market region, but patients still face many barriers when it comes to healthcare. 36% of Latin American countries do not reach the World Health Organization’s recommended immunization levels, case-fatality rates for myocardial infarctions are 54% higher, many live below the poverty line, and precarious sanitation and structural inequalities have made the impact of COVID-19 even direr.
Latin American countries are in urgent need of increased access to care. On average, hospitals are 3.5 times smaller than in the US, and consumers’ confidence in the care they are receiving is quickly plummeting.
Latin American faces many barriers to expanding healthcare access
Today, only 36% of Latin Americans are satisfied with the healthcare in their country, with some countries ranking as low as 18%.
Many Latin American countries are facing a lack of human and technological resources. On average, there are only two physicians and less than three nurses for every 1,000 patients, making access to care precarious in many areas. Medical technology is also scarce in many regions, with five times fewer MRIs and radiotherapy units and only half of the number of mammography units compared to the average found by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Many countries face significant infrastructure hurdles when it comes to implementing or expanding virtual care. Only 60.8% of Latin American’s report using the internet, in some countries that number drops to as low as 12%. This places a large barrier on enabling telehealth visits as the Pan American Health Organization recommends a minimum stable connection of 1 MB/300kb for any virtual healthcare interaction.
There is also a great deal of variability when it comes to policy around telemedicine and virtual care. Currently, only eight countries out of 19 in Latin America have governing policies for virtual care. This leaves an often confusing and ambiguous legal framework for telehealth operations.
In part due to these issues, adoption of virtual care across Latin American countries varies dramatically. 65% of hospitals in Chile report using virtual care, while only 25% of those in Columbia have utilized these services. According to one study, “telemedicine adoption is widespread in Latin America but has not yet achieved its full potential in terms of broad program scale.”
Many countries are also facing negative financial impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will likely decrease their healthcare budgets along with investments in technology.
Market size and growth potential of virtual care
In 2019, the virtual care market in Latin America was valued at $1.4 billion USD. This is projected to grow an astonishing 20% to $5.5 billion by 2026. This growth is in large part due to the application of virtual care for chronic disease treatment. There are a myriad of public health problems facing Latin Americans, from growing obesity rates, lack of physical activity, to nutritional deficiencies that could be improved with better access to primary care. By 2026, the tele-home segment of the market is expected to reach a valuation of $1.7 billion US, largely due to increasing access for non-emergent care for a variety of chronic diseases, including diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular disease.
Currently, primary care facilities and general hospitals are underutilizing virtual health options. Together they make up 83% of the care market, but only 38% of them report using telemedicine. This is in stark contrast to specialty hospitals, which make up only 2% of the total healthcare market but have the highest level of telemedicine penetration at 61%.
Opportunities and overcoming barriers to growth
While adoption rates remain low in many countries, the Latin American market is primed for development.
Increasing the use of and access to virtual care would improve healthcare for Latin Americans living in remote locations and reduce barriers for those in congested cities, giving people quick access to the right care, often without a hospital visit. This added convenience would not only benefit patients though. Healthcare providers would also benefit from improved efficiency and optimized medical infrastructures, all while decreasing the overall cost of care.
Many countries have also shown the government is willing to take an active part in expanding virtual care. As early as 2000, Columbia created an interoperable EMR system to increase clinicians’ access to patient data, requiring country-wide implementation by 2025. Brazil and Puerto Rico also increased access to virtual care during the pandemic by reducing the requirements for clinicians to conduct virtual care visits.
More support by government and regulatory agencies will be needed to help aid the expansion of virtual care in Latin America. By implementing public policies to enable inclusive access to digital health, ensuring connectivity in the health sector by 2030, and promoting space for cooperation and the promotion of digital health with strong legislative support will help to quickly expand this burgeoning healthcare market.
A strong focus on reimbursement strategies will also help motivate more care facilities to make the necessary investments in infrastructure and clinician education needed to expand access to virtual care. Currently, the majority of reimbursement has been focused on the care processes instead of patient-centered outcomes.
Having a healthcare workforce that is well-versed in digital care will help increase health equity despite provider shortages as virtual care is not limited by geographic barriers. Latin America’s quickly aging population will also increase the care shortage if steps are not taken to improve access to care. In 2020, more than 21% of the population was over 60, a dramatic increase from 2010 when the elderly population made up just 10%. This aging population requires greater access to care with over 80% having at least one chronic condition, creating many opportunities for virtual home health to capture market share while decreasing healthcare deficits.
Patients have also shown they are eager to take a more proactive role in their care and adopt virtual healthcare solutions, and many companies are starting to emerge to provide telemedicine solutions.
Overall, Latin America is primed for a virtual healthcare expansion. Many of the obstacles can be overcome by investing in technological connectivity and infrastructure, improving legislative clarity and reimbursement policies, and developing a technology-savvy workforce that is ready to take on the challenge.