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Jessica Brown,  Senior Programme Editor, Asia-Pacific, at The Economist

Jessica Brown, Senior Programme Editor, Asia-Pacific, The Economist

By Jessica Brown

Asian countries are at very different stages of development. This is nowhere truer than in healthcare policy. Some countries have very well developed — even rigid — healthcare systems. In others, the healthcare system is evolving rapidly.

Across much of the region, a window of opportunity has opened. Some governments are at risk of repeating mistakes made in other parts of the world. Yet other innovative policymakers and providers are forging a different path to the long-established healthcare systems of the West. Many are trying to learn from the mistakes others have made. The best are leapfrogging ahead to new models of healthcare provision.

Healthcare innovation in Asia is taking many different forms. In the Philippines, a new sin tax on alcohol and tobacco will fund the extension of the national health insurance scheme Philhealth. In Thailand, patients must pay extra to bypass primary care in an effort to ease the burden on a financially stretched hospital system. In South Korea, a performance management system has been created to address problems such as the over-prescription of antibiotics. 

One way Asian countries are innovating is through their use of technology. At The Economist’s recent Healthcare in Asia summit, held in Kuala Lumpur on March 21-22, delegates discussed projects including mobile intensive care units in rural India staffed remotely by expert doctors, SMS services which prompt patients to seek medication or book a check-up, and even online games designed to educate sufferers of chronic kidney disease about their condition.

Malaysian Health Minister, Liow Tiong Lai, addresses The Economist's  Healthcare in Asia 2013 summit.

Malaysian Health Minister, Liow Tiong Lai, addresses The Economist’s Healthcare in Asia 2013 summit.

Technology is also helping developing Asian healthcare systems to rein in costs. After the 2003 SARS outbreak, the Chinese government developed an internet based communicable disease reporting system. The government used these data to force hospitals to refer TB patients to special government-run TB clinics designed to provide cost effective specialist services.

Some of the best healthcare innovations in Asia use high-tech methods to facilitate low-tech, but effective, solutions. In Indonesia, President Yudhoyono has set up a special task force to ensure the country meets its Millennium Development Goal targets by 2015. The taskforce uses social media (Indonesia has more than 50 million Facebook users) to recruit health professionals under 30 years of age to undergo intensive training. Their training includes advocacy, leadership, project management, financial management and even survival training in the jungle. Once trained, the workers are sent to remote villages across Indonesia’s 15,000 islands on one-year rotations. Here, their role is to act as change-agents on issues like maternal health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS and clean water, and to help build resilience among local communities.

It may be premature to point to a new ‘Asian model’ of healthcare. Too many of the region’s healthcare systems seem stuck in the old hospital-centric model. Others want to reform, but face entrenched interests and political roadblocks. However, the level of innovation now taking place around the region suggests it is not far fetched to think that such a model could emerge in the future. The key for policymakers now is to take advantage of the window of opportunity while it remains firmly open.

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