Geographies in Depth

Improving healthcare for mothers and children in Asia

Harjit Gill
CEO, ASEAN and Pacific, Royal Philips
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It’s a simple yet powerful image: mother and child. A universal symbol of the ability to create and sustain life, and a reminder of the loving, symbiotic bond that defined our infancy. Perhaps this makes the health of mother and child a more telling measure of a nation’s state than abstract economic indicators. At any rate, South-East Asia would benefit from embracing innovative healthcare technology to give mothers and children the healthcare they need.

Fifteen years after the Millennium Development Goals were launched, Asia’s results for goals 4 and 5 – reducing child mortality and maternal health – are mixed. According to UN figures, the mortality rate for children under five in South-Eastern Asia dropped from 71 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 30 in 2012. And while maternal mortality has decreased in Asia, Southern Asia still accounted for 24% of all maternal deaths in 2013; and only 51% of deliveries in Eastern Asia were attended by health professionals.

These regional numbers obscure local differences. While Indonesia, for example, has earned praise for its successful birth control policies, maternal mortality has increased from 227 per 100,000 live births to 359 between 2007 and 2012. This rise is, in part, due to lack of funding and lack of healthcare services, which is hard to organize in an archipelago of more than 18,000 islands. Therefore, an integrated whole-country approach that addresses disparity between regions, hospitals and health workers will be vital in achieving successful health reforms.

Connected solutions

A breakthrough opportunity to improve the population’s healthcare lies in the digitization of our industry. By connecting patients and care providers with public health workers via mobile telecommunications on available cellular networks, we can fill critical gaps in primary care and have a lower cost base at the lowest level of intervention. Many of these digital solutions are already at hand and can help overcome three crucial obstacles: distance, lack of infrastructure and insufficient number of medical professionals.

EA15_Harjit Gill

With an overburdened hospital system or the nearest hospital being too far away, many Indonesian women and their unborn children would generally not be seen by a doctor. Now, however, doctors can clinically assess the data when midwives send it using mobile technologies. This allows for early detection and treatment of medical issues and, ultimately, a lowering of maternal and child death rates.

This type of solution could serve as an inspiration for the rest of Asia, particularly when it is based on the power of public-private partnerships. This would allow the governments and the private sector to bundle their forces and align their agendas to ensure that healthcare solutions meet national standards and are quickly implemented and scaled.

However, as care always revolves around people, even in a hyperconnected world, there will still be a need for well-educated professionals in the right places. Providing care at the clinic level rather than at the hospital could also help distribute care more closely to the population and increase access.

That is why Philips, working with professional associations, has trained 6,700 health professionals to operate sophisticated medical devices. By adopting these distributed and connected technologies and care models, Asia may jump ahead of many other regions to provide more affordable and inclusive healthcare to its fast-growing population. And governments would do well to remember that investments in sustainable health systems will increase people’s earning potential for generations to come.

Turning point in 2015

In terms of digital advancements and international development goals, this year marks a turning point for the world. The Sustainable Development Goals will supersede the Millennium Development Goals, determining the international development agenda for the next 15 years. The new goals include an end to preventable deaths of newborns and under-five children, universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, and a global maternal mortality ratio below 70 per 100,000 live births. These are worthwhile and achievable goals.

This boost is much needed. Access to quality healthcare is a human right and an economic necessity, and South-East Asia still has many challenges to tackle, particularly when it comes to mothers and children. So let the image of mother and child inspire our efforts: the very nature of their bond is connected and cooperative, which explains its impact and enduring power. If mobile technology and collaboration between governments and the private sector can mimic even half of this power, South-East Asia will do well over the coming decades.

Author: Harjit Gill, Chief Executive Officer, ASEAN and Pacific, Royal Philips, Singapore

Image: Newborn babies sleep on beds inside a ward at Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila July 11, 2014. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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