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A growing tree needs healthy roots: Building on the potential of ASEAN health systems



We’re now one year away from the planned launch of the ASEAN Economic Community ­– a single regional common market of Asean countries. This year, most of the region's 10 economies should achieve high single-digit growth and both production and consumption are expected to grow further. But while this growth has lifted millions out of poverty, economic inequality is still widening and around 10 per cent of people in this region still live on less than $1.25 a day.

Our region needs to ask itself how it can ensure that economic growth will positively impact the broadest possible range of communities and families. I personally believe that access to timely, affordable and high-quality health care is key, since economic growth is contingent on a healthy population.


But there are a number of challenges. The Philippines, for example, has only 0.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people (the WHO recommends two), while some 30,000 Filipino medical professionals work abroad because of better pay. Health facilities tend to be concentrated in urban areas, while rural areas suffer from higher levels of poverty and mother and child mortality.


The region's governments are aware of these issues and changes are sought in various ways. More money is being diverted to health infrastructure and health policies are being modernized with the introduction of universal health coverage. Unfortunately, decision-making can be slow, implementation more complicated than expected and enforcement of policies less ardent than needed.


An overhaul of the region's health systems is an immense task that requires co-operation between governments and the private sector. Philips, for example, recently partnered with the Indonesian Reproductive Science Institute to tackle the country's infant mortality rate, which had risen sharply from 227 per 100,000 births in 2007 to 359 in 2012, making it one of the highest in the world. Now, as part of a one-year trial, midwives in the Medan area will visit pregnant women and collect their medical data with a mobile app so that obstetricians and gynaecologists elsewhere can monitor patients. The effort aims to increase pre-natal care, improve delivery and provide immediate care for high-risk patients.

In 20 years time, my hope is that the majority of people will have access to basic health services around key areas like family planning, infectious diseases, and proper diet. I also hope comprehensive programmes will be in place for preventing and treating diseases like diabetes and obesity. And I would be grateful to see universal coverage fully implemented, giving millions of people a stable foundation for a healthier and more productive life.


Technology will play a crucial role in this. Perhaps in two decades from now, families in even the remotest of places will be able to access a live physician and their medical files through a mobile device. Or medical devices will have become so much smarter, cheaper and easier to use that communities can easily invest in them and take control of their own health and wellbeing. And perhaps ASEAN will have set up a system for sharing and copying best practices in health systems, allowing successful innovations to be quickly disseminated through the region.


Equitable progress has never been more relevant. ASEAN has a bright future ahead of it, but perhaps the true measure of its success will be the extent to which economic growth will increase the quality of all people's lives. If public and private sector leaders support this vision, ASEAN can transform the lives of millions and become a model for the rest of the world.


For more information on Philips healthcare solutions, contact

Harjit Gill  

CEO, Philips ASEAN & Pacific

Harjit Gill is EVP and Chief Executive Officer of Philips ASEAN & Pacific. In this role, she oversees a team of 10,000 people in 11 countries and is responsible for accelerating growth for the company across its Healthcare, Lighting and Consumer Lifestyle sectors.


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