In South-East Asia today, most countries face a dilemma: Should limited resources be used to combat the rapid growth of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that take such a terrible toll on human life and economic development – or should they go to expanded efforts to reduce the debilitating effects of poverty?

Some consider this an either/or proposition, but that’s a false choice. The truth is, one can’t be achieved without the other. Economic vitality helps create and support innovative and effective healthcare systems but no country can succeed economically without a healthy workforce.  Health and wealth must go hand in hand.

Creating a smart healthcare ecosystem in South-East Asia that meets the challenges of NCDs will save millions of lives and billions of dollars in economic output. That’s a win/win prescription for a region in the midst of an unprecedented epidemiologic and economic transition which is driven, in part, by the rise in NCDs.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) has called the increasing incidence of NCDs “a slow-motion disaster,” driven by ageing populations, changing lifestyles and other factors. This global phenomenon has been exacerbated by rising healthcare costs, a growing shortage of medical personnel, increasing demand for new healthcare technologies and a lack of focus on prevention of these chronic diseases.

Today, NCDs are the leading cause of death worldwide – 36 million in 2008, due mainly to cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes. By 2050, WHO predicts 50% of the world’s population will suffer from at least one chronic disease.

In South-East Asia, however, the future is now. NCDs have already reached epidemic proportions, causing 60% of deaths in the region and more than 2.5 million a year. By 2050, the average age in Asia will be 40 years, a stark contrast with an average age of 29 in the year 2000. These demographic realities are complicated by the region’s lack of resources, limited access to technology, shortage of trained clinical personnel and often, remote geography.

To meet the healthcare challenges facing the people of South-East Asia, both the public and private sector must embrace a 21st century healthcare paradigm focused on NCD prevention. This would include keeping people healthy longer and reducing costs, providing better healthcare education to empower people to live healthier lives, as well as new technology and improved training to help clinicians manage NCDs.

Most importantly, all of these efforts must be part of a comprehensive collaborative effort to strengthen healthcare systems across the region. When one country or company shares its best practices in healthcare, others will reap the benefits. This philosophy is behind the newly created ASEAN NCD Network, designed to encourage constructive debate and knowledge-sharing about these serious diseases across the region.

Recently, the same kind of thinking led to a joint effort by the Myanmar Radiological Society, Ministry of Health and Philips to improve imaging capabilities in this emerging country. The collaboration produced an education programme designed to give healthcare professionals in Myanmar an opportunity to further their skills in the clinical applications of cutting-edge imaging technology. Later in the year, the partnership will introduce the first PET/CT in Myanmar ,putting shared knowledge to good use at Yangon General Hospital.

No country should have to choose between the health of its people and its prosperity. If we are to see this dynamic region achieve its human and economic potential, global leaders must work together to help South-East Asia create a smart, sustainable healthcare ecosystem that improves the lives of patients and protects the economic vitality of its people.

Author: Harjit Gill is Chief Executive Officer of Philips ASEAN & Pacific

Image: People are seen exercising on the bridge over Yangon river REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun