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PH healthcare industry set for growth

/ 12:01 AM May 09, 2016

PHILIPPINE healthcare has seen increased activity and opportunities in the last few years.

While healthcare demand is still driven by traditional factors such as aging populations and consequences of modern urban lifestyles that lead to increased incidences of disease, there are other factors that are stimulating exciting growth and innovations.

Mandate for coverage

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The business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, estimated to have generated about $21 billion in revenues last year (from about $19 billion in 2014), has contributed greatly in improving the spending power of an expanding middle class, as did the almost $23 billion remitted by overseas Filipino workers in the first eleven months of 2015 (compared to $27 billion remitted in 2014).

With the Philippine Health Insurance Corp.’s (Philhealth) mandate to cover 100 percent of the population, demand for quality, affordable and accessible healthcare is on the rise. Among other opportunities, this allows the private healthcare sector to collaborate with public counterparts in providing improved services to Filipinos.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, healthcare spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012 was highest in Vietnam (6.6 percent) compared to Cambodia (5.4 percent), Singapore (4.7 percent) and the Philippines (4.6 percent).  There is still a long way to go for Southeast Asia as a region given that it had the lowest average at 3.9 percent compared to the rest of the world, with North America leading at 17.2 percent, the European Union at 10.2 percent, and Latin America and the Caribbean at 7.7 percent.

Still, as a nation, we are already on the road to improvement. Per capita healthcare spending for the Philippines has actually grown from $78.1 in 2009 to $118.8 in 2012—a growth of more than 50 percent. Should this trajectory continue in tandem with economic growth, healthcare services will eventually reach a greater portion of the population than what is currently being served today.

The digital age

Digitization and improvements in ICT (information and communication technology) are disrupting not only traditional businesses, but even those not immediately thought of as potential beneficiaries—such as the healthcare sector.

From electronic patient records to the wireless transmittal of patient files for remote diagnosis, improvements in technology and communication will lead to a more efficient and cost effective delivery of healthcare services. Telemedicine, or the use of electronic communications to transmit and exchange medical information and data to treat patients, is fast gaining momentum in the region.

With the increasing penetration of smartphones, wireless tools and other similar technology, primary care and specialist referral services, as well as remote patient monitoring and patient medical health information are just some of the services that can be performed and enhanced by telemedicine.

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Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia have started adopting healthcare IT solutions to bring the sector to the next level. In 2009, Singapore developed its National Electronic Health Record initiative, which would allow healthcare practitioners in the island state access to a patient’s records across the healthcare spectrum.

Malaysia started its Hospital Implementation System way back in 1993 with the first telemedicine project in 1996, while Thailand started with the creation of its National Health Information Committee in 2010.

The Philippines has already developed an eHealth Strategic Framework and Plan for the period 2014 to 2020, which aimed to utilize information and communication technologies in the health sector. This will support the delivery of health services and manage health systems for greater efficiency and effectivity, and is in line with providing universal healthcare to all Filipinos.

One of the strategic goals of this framework is to establish unified and coherent health and management information systems, and also to capitalize on ICT to reach and provide better health services and support the attainment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

To be sure, there have been initiatives along this space to push an eHealth strategy. For example, the Department of Health (DOH) in Region 4B (Mimaropa) has launched what seems to be the first interactive telemedicine system in the country at the Dr. Damian J. Reyes Provincial Hospital in Marinduque. The system currently provides medical consultations and diagnostics through video calls.

In an archipelago such as the Philippines, the opportunities for telemedicine are endless. Even the delivery of simple medicines across inaccessible areas is now being piloted through the use of drones.

One only has to note the latest in medical technology to appreciate the direction that healthcare providers should be looking at, as practitioners and patients alike continue to look for ways to improve healthcare services, diagnosis and treatment.

The recent Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas introduced new applications that provide convenient virtual check-up and diagnosis, which include smartphone apps. Handheld devices are now being introduced that allow consumers to measure temperature, heart rate, and oxygen levels. These are even equipped with cameras that allow examination of the throat and inner ear in order to allow doctors to perform online examinations. There are also new devices being introduced to the market such as wrist-worn blood pressure sensors that deliver information to a smartphone.

GE’s thrust to become a leading digital-industrial company has led to similar innovations in handheld ultrasound equipment, which is currently being deployed in Africa and Southeast Asia. Equipped with Bluetooth capability, Vscan Access, a portable handheld ultrasound device allows medical professionals to increasingly reach remote areas in the country, scanning pregnant women and wirelessly transmitting images of fetuses to doctors even in faraway hospitals, to help determine whether mothers need to proceed to a health center or hospital for appropriate care.

Asean integration

With the start of the Asean Economic Community in 2015, we cannot dismiss the effects—as well as opportunities—presented by the expected free flow of goods, services, capital and skilled labor in the regional healthcare sector.

Given the different levels of healthcare services in Asean, increased cross-border investments and even potential consolidation are to be expected.

The Philippine healthcare sector has been attracting the attention of players within Southeast Asia and even the Middle East given the size of our population and the relative underinvestment in the sector.

The largest private healthcare provider in the country, Metro Pacific, counts eleven hospitals in the group with a total of about 3,000 beds across the Philippine islands. A relatively new entrant into the healthcare space is the Qualimed Health Network, owned and operated by the Mercado Hospital Group in partnership with Ayala Land. Qualimed currently has seven operational facilities with four more (two hospitals and two clinics) scheduled to open this year.

One competitive advantage the country has in this field is its skilled medical practitioners. The Philippines had over 110,000 medical course graduates in 2014.

Filipino medical professionals are renowned across the world for their skills and brand of care. Particular restrictions in the exercise of professions and the granting of work permits in some Asean countries can enhance the value of our medical professionals not only in the Philippines but also in countries where the practice of their trade is relatively easier.

This could also raise the confidence of medical tourists as they contemplate destinations in the region that offer value yet quality medical care.

The future of healthcare

The Philippine healthcare industry is particularly poised for exciting growth. Increased government spending and contributions from sin taxes are being channeled to improve on the delivery of and access to public healthcare. In the private sector, business expansion and opportunities currently unfolding have caused major local and regional business groups to look more closely and expand their investment plans in the sector.

The Filipino’s physical well-being and health are critical to ensure inclusive and sustained economic growth. Healthcare that is accessible and affordable for all is an aspiration that can be attained if we all take advantage of the opportunities before us.

Jocot de Dios is a former Undersecretary of the Department of Energy. He has joined the private sector in various leadership capacities, expanding his expertise in power and energy specifically in the sector of gas and petroleum, being a former managing director of Nido Petroleum Ltd. in Australia and chair of the PNOC-Exploration Corp. At present, he is the CEO of GE Philippines.

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