Tapping the cloud to power Indonesia’s digital healthcare shift

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the worst-hit provinces relied on health-tech solutions to manage the strain on their hospital facilities. Astrid Dita, an economist and policy lead at a global cloud computing company, says that the country is discovering new ways of solving healthcare problems.

Astrid Dita_Hitachi Yong Leaders Initiative_Amazon Web Services
Triggered by the pandemic, the healthcare sector in Indonesia is using more technology and data to solve some of the unique problems it faces, said Astrid Dita, an alumna of the Hitachi Young Leaders' Initiative.

Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the health sector in Indonesia had been facing a daunting challenge. It wanted to use the power of technology to reinvent how care was delivered, but faced inertia from key stakeholders who were concerned about the high costs and demands of taking a digital leap. 

The Covid-19 crisis changed all that and unleashed a wave of innovation, from governments at the provincial level to start-ups in the private sector, which started searching for solutions to enhance their service delivery. At the height of the pandemic in 2021, Indonesia had recorded a daily death toll of almost 1,800, Asia’s highest outside China. The health system strained under pressure as cases surged with doctors working double-time to treat patients.

Astrid Dita, who works with the public policy team of a global cloud computing company, told Eco-Business that health-tech solutions, including the deployment of teleconsultations and surveillance measures, has helped to alleviate some of the pain points on health systems. Through the use of digital tools, the public could better access verified medical guidance, get updates about the coronavirus situation, speak to their doctors remotely, and even have medication prescribed and delivered. 

Dita, an economist by training and an alumna of the Hitachi Young Leaders’ Initiative (HYLI), said that access to healthcare in Indonesia varies across provinces. Supported by cloud technology, which operates on a pay-as-you-go model, where companies are charged based on usage, health-tech providers have been able to provide more locale-based solutions, customised to the needs of residents in different provinces. 

For example, in West Java province, which has a Covid-19 caseload that constantly trails the capital Jakarta, the local authority has set up its own telehealth service for its 49 million residents, so that people can access information and book tests. West Java governor Ridwan Kamil, had said that this acts as a “filter”, to ensure that people do not go to the hospitals for the mildest symptoms. 

Nurse_Indonesia_Covid19_healthtech

A nurse working at a hospital facility in Kota Makassar, Indonesia, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Image: Irwan iwe / Unsplash

“When the pandemic hit, people also realised that some of these technological tools and applications could make their lives easier. There is a demand for better public service delivery,” said Dita. 

Dita attended HYLI in 2008, when the world was mired in a financial crisis, with the volatility of oil prices affecting global markets. The Hitachi Asia flagship youth development programme held in Jakarta that year brought together university students from Asia-Pacific to discuss how to better manage the energy policies of the region to guard against future shocks. Then a pharmaceutical biology major, Dita had to step out of her comfort zone to tackle an unfamiliar topic. 

The experience, as she described, proved to be a “turning point”, as it had sparked her interest in economics, prompting her to pursue a career that she had not planned for, first working on policy research for renowned multilateral institutions, then in advisory roles for private sector companies with a global presence. 

In this interview, Dita shares more about how the pandemic has triggered a paradigm shift in Indonesia’s digital healthcare. 

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the technology sector in Indonesia? Is the work more challenging now or do opportunities abound? 

We have, unfortunately, been badly affected by the pandemic in Indonesia and everyone is trying to do their best with limited resources. The good thing is, technology has become an enabler for us in coping with the crisis. For example, we have been using a phone application, something that is the equivalent of Singapore’s “Trace Together”, and it is called PeduliLindungi (meaning ‘care to protect’ in Bahasa Indonesia). It is essentially a Covid-19 tracking app that the government uses to improve health surveillance.

There is also a health-tech start-up called Halodoc that has been expanding its telemedicine service across different parts of Indonesia. The platform runs on cloud and is really popular. It has also become a one-stop platform for pandemic-related services. Then there is the proliferation of platforms and applications for more convenient food and package deliveries during the lockdowns. 

In summary, when the pandemic hit, people realised that some of these technological tools and applications could make their lives easier. They started relying on them to go about their daily lives. All these digital tools have been very helpful and these types of innovations, which enable better service delivery for citizens, would be difficult to realise if they were not powered by cloud technology. 

Indonesia is such a large country. What are your observations about technology access across the different provinces? 

There is indeed inequality across the nation. There are some regions that are more mature and advanced when it comes to the adoption of technology solutions and there are others that have lagged behind. These provinces are at different points of progress when it comes to technology but the pandemic has triggered a shift in thinking. With the government emphasising the importance of digital transformation, the awareness is now higher everywhere. There is inequality, but there is also aspiration. Citizens demand to see better public service delivery and digital tools can help to achieve that. 

For example, during the start of the pandemic, faced with a surge of confirmed coronavirus cases, the province of West Java was able to deploy a Covid-19 monitoring system before the central government launched theirs. The open source “Pikobar” initiative is a one-stop application where statistics on Covid-19 cases in the province and throughout Indonesia are shared. The residents of West Java can also use the platform to register and get tested for the virus and data on vaccination is shared on the app. It is a new approach pioneered during the pandemic that has made life easier for West Java residents, since it is somewhat customised for the particular locale.

In the province of Bali, systems were deployed to predict the demand for oxygen tanks at the height of the coronavirus surge, when there was an oxygen crisis. Since more people are working from home, some companies also turned to digital technology to improve the reliability of their attendance system. 

The fact that these provinces are using digital tools enabled by cloud means that they are able to deliver digital solutions at a fraction of the cost they would have to take on if they had managed their own infrastructure. Since cloud operates on a pay-as-you-use model, they are then able to leverage on their limited budgets to deliver better public services. 

These innovations also demonstrates that within the public sector, there are talents in the different provinces, that can be tapped on. They can help a particular region cope better with the pandemic. The key is to make use of the resources that are already available, and embrace sharing and collaboration. It will be hard to innovate with a mindset that you have to build everything from scratch, right? 

We have, unfortunately, been badly affected by the pandemic in Indonesia and everyone is trying to do their best with limited resources. The good thing is, technology has become an enabler for us in coping with the crisis.

Astrid Dita, Hitachi Young Leaders’ Initiative alumna 

Do you think the use of technology in these instances are sustainable? 

Technology can definitely intersect with sustainability. What makes the cloud unique is the fact that it is a resource that can be shared among many users and hence, on aggregate, we are able to help our customers reduce their carbon footprint. A report by 451 Research, a unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence, found that if companies were to move all their applications to the cloud, the migration can help compress their carbon footprint by nearly 80 per cent. 

That being said, running data centres to power the cloud can be energy-intensive. There is a need to reduce their carbon emissions across all the three scopes, including that from direct operations and value chain emissions. The design of the data centre and how we power it also needs to be optimised, to deliver better energy efficiency. 

What is inspiring is that companies are becoming more aware of their sustainability targets and they are keen to learn about products and services that can help them on their sustainability journey. 

Are there any pitfalls to using technology for social innovation? 

More data is being collected now. We have to be conscious that data is just data, if you do not do anything about it, that will just sit idle and you will not get added value from it.

Triggered by the pandemic, the health sector in Indonesia is thinking more about how to best integrate all the different data it is collecting. There is more awareness about the benefits of open-source data resources and the need for data to be inter-operable across more systems. Data protection also becomes an issue, and many stakeholders are talking about it now, because Indonesia, like many other countries, face cybersecurity threats. 

How was your experience at the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative (HYLI)? 

Had I not participated in HYLI and been exposed to my peers from other countries – some of them the best talents in their respective area of study – I would not be where I am today. I would probably have stayed in my little shell, aware only about my own field of study. I studied pharmaceutical biology and HYLI made me look at issues affecting the world – well beyond the focus of my undergraduate study. 

I remember the assignment we were given was particularly difficult. We looked at the oil price shock that was happening, when the hike in oil prices took place against the backdrop of the global financial crisis. We had to think of solutions for better energy management and to strengthen Asian partnerships. Before the conference, I had to write a paper on global energy policy. It was quite crazy, because this was a topic that was completely unfamiliar to me. I reached out to people who were willing to share their insights and resources. It was a steep learning curve and I remember thinking that these peers that I were meeting were really knowledgeable and intimidating! That is the beauty of HYLI though, where all these smart and brilliant people gather at a single event and you are able to meet people from all walks of life. HYLI also has a social focus to every technical topic that it looks into, which makes the programme very meaningful. 

Why do you say it was a turning point for you? 

When I was working on the energy paper for HYLI, I met someone who would later become my mentor. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I pivoted to studying economics and enrolled in a masters programme. I then worked as a consultant with several multilateral institutions, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, where I began to specialise in infrastructure financing. I also did a short stint at one of the “Big Four” professional services firms, before coming back to policy work. I think the HYLI experience made me comfortable with experimentation. It helped me learn how to step beyond my comfort zone and to be unafraid of tackling new challenges and issues. 

The theme for this year’s HYLI is Social Innovation in the New Normal. The event will be held from 18 to 21 July. 

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