We are now in what is widely known as the Asian Century. Within this context, the transformation of healthcare is one of Asia’s greatest challenges but also one of its greatest opportunities. However Asia is a vast heterogeneous region, and includes countries with varying systems of politics and governance, and at different phases of economic development – with per capita GDP ranging from, say, Laos at US$1,320 to Japan at US$45,903. Health spending per capita shows a similar wide variation – US$39 for Laos to US$3,754 for Japan. Hence health priorities and needs, and capacity to deliver good healthcare, differ markedly. Even within huge Asian countries such as China and India, regional health indices may vary greatly.
This means there cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” set of healthcare approaches or solutions. And with rapid economic growth driving massive change, approaches to health issues must go far beyond the normal ambit of national health departments and involve multi-sectoral, cross-agency and transnational approaches and cooperation.
There are several salient trends shaping the health landscape of Asia in the coming decades. The first is urbanisation, which is happening at an unprecedented pace and scale. Rapid economic growth has resulted in rapid social changes – in lifestyles, diet, education and family structures – and created widening income gaps and inequalities which hinder access of some segments of the population to medical services. It is also often associated with environmental degradation and pollution, as well as higher accident rates and exposure of workers to occupational diseases, with attendant health problems.
PROFESSOR TAN CHORH CHUAN is president of the National University of Singapore and deputy chairman of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology & Research. This essay is adapted from his recent John Yu oration for the George Institute in Sydney.