To safeguard our future, Asia Pacific markets need to invest in health

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Dorthe Mikkelsen, President of Asia Pacific, MSD

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how vital health is to our shared economic prosperity, causing global GDP to decline 4.4% in 2020. Yet research by McKinsey has shown that reducing the global disease burden could add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2040, with $4 in economic return for each $1 invested. This improvement in health could play a meaningful role in the world's long-term economic recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic also has made clear what can be achieved when health tops the global agenda. Collaboration between government, the biopharmaceutical industry and numerous partners in the wider community has seen the world as of March 25 pass 500 million doses administered of COVID-19 vaccines that did not even exist when the WHO declared a pandemic, little more than a year ago.

Many governments around the world have also taken bold steps to respond to the crisis and its effects, from providing economic support to families and businesses to funding critical health needs, and now delivering on the major logistical exercise of implementing national vaccination programs. These efforts have by necessity focused on rising to the short-term challenges of this crisis. But we now have an important opportunity to transform health for the future by building on the lessons learned.

It is time for health to be recognized as a priority for national development and treated as an investment, not a cost. Governments in Asia Pacific and the healthcare industry must therefore work together on needed reform and policy change to accelerate availability and sustain access to important healthcare innovations and interventions for all patients. This is particularly true in a world where public health is not solely a national issue, but a global one.

A prime example of where a difference can be made in Asia Pacific is in cancer care. Asia had over 9.5 million new cancer cases in 2020, nearly half of the global total. The number of cases is expected to grow nearly 60% by 2040 to over 15.1 million. This figure represents a huge healthcare challenge of its own which, with the right policies in place, is neither inevitable nor insurmountable. Two areas of health policy reform include first, ensuring sustainable funding and second, ensuring sustainable access.

Ensuring sustainable funding

Ultimately, health systems must be funded on a sustainable basis if they are to endure and meet long-term public health needs. That requires directing investment to the areas that can best contribute to improved patient outcomes and can result in savings to patients, their families, insurers, employers, governments, and hospitals in avoided medical expenses associated with keeping people healthy.

Indeed, there is a growing body of research that indicates pharmaceutical innovation often contributes to society not only in terms of clinical benefits, but also in terms of the efficiency and sustainability of the healthcare system.

Important areas of investment include screening programs, public education on wellness, health literacy, and disease awareness as well as ensuring the broadest access to therapies that reduce hospitalization and length of recovery, or that improve important patient outcomes like survival and quality of life. It is vital to prioritize investments that offer the greatest benefits to patients and that bring value to the wider health system. For example, the private sector can come together with the government on a public-private partnership model to work for the greater good and help ensure that healthcare remains accessible at a time of budgetary constraints, while also promoting sustainable innovations.

Ensuring sustainable access

Meanwhile, to ensure impactful, innovative drugs are available to those who need them, we must also invest in sustainable access mechanisms. Medicines of all kinds are not only an integral part of the health care ecosystem, but fundamentally an investment in human capital. Poor health is a major cause of productivity loss in the workplace. For example, the Australian economy loses over half a million full-time person years and 47,000 part-time person years annually due to chronic diseases. These diseases reduce Australia's productivity by 10%.

Improving access requires governments to deploy evidence-based Health Technology Assessment (HTA) processes that consider the value of medicines to patients, caregivers, the healthcare system, and broader society. Such value-based approaches and methods should also keep up with the rapid pace of clinical innovation to facilitate timely access to clinically and cost-effective health technologies. Collaboration across multiple stakeholders, from patients and healthcare professionals to policymakers and industry partners, is vital to support quicker access to promising health interventions while safeguarding the sustainability of health systems and of life science innovation.

Reorienting our approach to health

Beyond considerations of access and financing, there is ultimately a need to rethink our overall approach to health by looking at the wider, longer-term benefits to populations. Cancer care represents just one example but is by no means the only area requiring close attention. While COVID-19 vaccinations are in the spotlight, the ongoing work of other vaccination programs remains crucial. Investing in initiatives like national immunization programs, ensuring routine immunization continues, and enhancing vaccine confidence will help to ensure that governments can continue to protect population health as broadly as possible.

Health is key to the wealth of a country. Countries that improve their citizens' health grow faster. Therefore, as we look ahead to set new priorities for a post-pandemic era, we must ensure that we have the ambition to invest for better health, not only for its own sake but also for our collective prosperity.

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