In Focus    |    11.2022

The online doctor will see you … NOW!

“Now” is 3 minutes after you came up with the idea you needed to see a doctor.

A.S. Watson is bringing back doctor home visits with an emphatically 21st-century style in the UK, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Online doctoring is making healthcare more efficient, private and convenient. Superdrug in the UK and Watsons in Asia are leading the way.

The Nuffield Trust reports that during late 2020, the UK in particular saw a spike in doctor telephone appointments to over 10 million a month (compared to 16.9 million face-to-face appointments). The same report surveyed patients and showed that 68% were open to an online consultation. In Hong Kong, telemedicine involving online doctor consultations is still quite novel. In Malaysia, COVID-19 pushed many doctors to start offering telemedicine. A Journal of Medicine and Life (Jul–Aug 2021) article showed that 22% of doctors had been conducting telemedicine (telephone, online video and text chat) appointments in 2020.
The online experience mirrors what would happen during a visit to a clinic – minus the waiting time.

The return of the house call

Among A.S. Watson brands, Superdrug has a long head start. Lengthy wait times at the UK’s national health provider, the NHS, and the rise of e-commerce saw convergence between consumer demand and technological capability to bring doctors online in 2013. Working with trusted telemedicine partners, Superdrug worked carefully to comply with regulatory agencies to pioneer telemedicine.

Two different elements needed to be considered. A “clinical approach” to offering online services means that the online experience mirrors what would happen during a visit to a clinic – minus the waiting time. Questionnaires to be completed follow the same patterns and protocols developed for in-person visits. When appropriate, doctors come online to connect with the patients, provide health guidance and, if needed, provide drug prescriptions.

The second element to consider is the customer journey. Superdrug integrates their deep knowledge of the in-store customer experience with operational data to create that journey. So from the first clicks on the website to diagnosis and medicine delivery, Superdrug considers the entire experience in a way that an independent doctor, e-commerce provider or pharmacist couldn’t possibly imagine.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Watsons Malaysia and Hong Kong leapt into action. In early 2022, the convergence of demand and ability to supply saw the two markets quickly plan and launch their own services.

Hong Kong’s service – Watsons eDr Online Doctor Consultation – went from concept to partnering and launch in just a few months. The online doors opened to the public in May this year. The Malaysia service, Watsons Online Doctor, was launched on a similarly tight production schedule with a local partner.

Hong Kong’s service went from concept to partnering and launch in just a few months.

COVID-19 peaks especially helped to drive demand in Hong Kong and Malaysia as people were either in quarantine or very averse to going out. Patients still needed to consult with a doctor and have prescriptions issued. The service also provided much-needed sick-leave certificates for employers and letters of referral to access medical specialists (who need a letter from a GP). The short wait time made them realise how much time they were saving by cutting out travel and waiting to see a doctor, and then waiting again to have a prescription issued. Home delivery or delivery to a local Watsons store were also a vital part of the customer journey.

Style is substance

The specific services and the way in which they are presented is carefully tailored to different markets to match their different healthcare cultures.  When Superdrug launched, they considered what services to offer by monitoring Google Search data for commonly researched ailments, identifying healthcare trends observed by NHS doctors under their employment, and by considering the customer demand for discretion. Online Doctor launched with only 12 services. Today, Superdrug has grown to offer over 61 specialised solutions. The list may surprise you.

A wide range of potentially embarrassing, but important, health conditions get early treatment as the presentation makes them easier to address; a thoughtful man with a banana in hand (for erectile dysfunction) or a woman holding a giant clock (for the Morning After Pill). Today, the service includes solutions for erectile dysfunction (marketed as “ED” after research showed customers react better to the abbreviation), urinary tract infections and a wide range of sexually transmitted diseases. Caris Newson, the Interim Healthcare Director, says Superdrug’s online presence is going for a “big sister” vibe, not an imposing or impersonal ambience some people get from hospitals or doctor visits, while still offering excellent clinical care. 

Today, Superdrug offers over 61 specialised solutions. The list may surprise you.

The Hong Kong website has a very different look and feel for a more conservative medical culture. It is more clinical in presentation, with reassuring experts in lab coats who direct you to a GP. Part of this is because the Superdrug service is more directed at people who mostly (but not always) know what ails them and what type of treatment they might need. Freda Ng, Chief Digital Officer, Watsons International, explains, “There is no separation of dispensing from prescribing in Hong Kong; therefore, we still rely very much on doctors to issue the prescription.” Also, in Hong Kong, the route to a specialist is through a GP, so they need a “first pass” diagnosis to get a referral to a specialist.

The Malaysia service accommodating the local market uses WhatsApp chat as quality bandwidth can be more of an issue than, say, in Hong Kong. Like Superdrug, a clinical approach is used in asking questions, mostly through WhatsApp. Patients are then directed to an online or face-to-face doctor consultation if needed. Local regulations mean e-prescriptions need to be picked up at a Watsons store. Regular Watsons customers can even get free doctor consultations in some instances.

The future is now

A rapid response to immediate pandemic healthcare demands, as well as long-term trends, will direct the future course of these services. Superdrug incorporates Trustpilot reviews on-site. Trustpilot is the UK’s most used “review everything” site and the Online Doctor service is rated “Excellent” (4.6/5) with almost 18,000 reviews.

Hong Kong and Malaysia are moving to expand their range of services. Hong Kong brought their in-store traditional Chinese medicine doctors online in September.

From the UK to Asia, A.S. Watson is delivering a service that is meeting people’s needs, relieving the burden of healthcare on patients and providers and driving better health outcomes. If you live in the right place, diagnosis to medicine to better health – it’s all just a few clicks away.

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