Chief Scientist on 'making Asia fit for new growth'

On June 28, The George Institute’s Chief Scientist, Professor Anushka Patel, participated in a launch event for the Asia Society’s new publication 'Disruptive Asia: Asia's rise and Australia's future'. The publication was edited by award-winning journalist and author, Greg Earl, and features 20 essays including Professor Patel’s piece, 'Making Asia Fit for New Growth'. 

More than 100 people attended the launch event, which featured a panel discussion with four essay authors, including Professor Patel. The topics ranged from the role of the media in vilifying the Asian community to Australian healthcare innovation that can be exported to Asia. The event, held at the Telstra Customer Insight Centre, was presented in partnership with PwC.

The Asia Society has made the entire publication available for download, or the individual essays can also be downloaded. 

The following is an excerpt from Professor Patel’s essay, 'Making Asia Fit for New Growth' (PDF).

A hundred million family homes have changed in China and throughout Asia. Poverty is being disrupted and growth has opened new opportunities for work, living, housing and education. At the same time, investments in public health initiatives have succeeded in reducing maternal mortality, infant mortality rates and hunger-related deaths in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) like China and other Asian nations. 

Yet flourishing economies can be a double-edged sword. Counter-intuitively, economic growth and improved living standards can also introduce new health challenges to overcome. 

Rapid economic growth has fueled demographic, environmental and socioeconomic changes throughout Asia, and it’s driving a new normal of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) — especially heart disease and stroke, chronic lung diseases, diabetes, and mental illness. 

According to the World Health Organization, eight in 10 NCD deaths now occur in LMICs. For as much as NCDs get mislabeled as “diseases of affluence,” they are severely affecting the people of the developing world. The growing burden of treating and responding to NCDs — in both rural and urban areas — is putting more and more pressure on already stretched resources and ailing health infrastructure. 

Beyond NCDs, preventable injuries account for one in 10 deaths globally and, incredibly, 40 per cent of deaths in adolescents and young people. As the world develops, workplace injuries and traffic accidents increase. More people have employment and mobility — but that comes with an increase in preventable injuries. 

We’re at an inflection point in history. In 2011, the United Nations declared that NCDs pose a global threat, identifying them as one of the major challenges facing social and economic development globally, and as an important contributor to rising inequality. 

Proven, cost-effective interventions are available for these new pandemics, and Australia has considerable expertise to offer in tackling them. 

Although NCDs and injuries in LMICs are certainly a humanitarian concern for Australia and the entire global community, the issue has economic significance as well. That’s why Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) views global development funding not only as a philanthropic exercise in global equity but also as a key arm of foreign policy. 

As the global health community confronts NCDs and preventable injuries, there’s an opportunity for two-way benefit between high- and low-income countries and in particular for Australian and Asian policymakers to share responsibility for advancing health initiatives focused on prevention and treatment of NCDs and injuries. Among the things at stake is our regional economic prosperity. Left unchecked, the NCD epidemic threatens to consume vast health resources in those countries that can least afford it, and amount to trillions of dollars lost in terms of productivity between now and 2030.

Australia has developed effective policies and high-quality research that are predominantly focused on conditions, like NCDs and injuries, which are very relevant in high-income countries (HICs). And so, there exists an opportunity to assist Asia in further developing research capacity to address these issues. 

However, while Australia and other Western countries have much to offer in terms of expertise, resources and technologies, policymakers must step back and avoid making assumptions around what is the “right” way. Australia’s health institutions and systems face many challenges around equity, access and affordability. And health solutions have to be designed for — not in spite of — economic, geographic and cultural contexts. LMICs, with the support of HICs, must lead the way in forging their own solutions to meet the needs of their people. 

By working with LMICs and thinking outside the box, we just might discover opportunities for “reverse” innovation, in which solutions developed for LMICs could improve healthcare in countries like Australia as well. Easy, affordable kidney dialysis treatment is one particular example. The community health worker model is another.

The story of the remainder of the 21st century will be significantly determined by how we manage and harness economic growth to address a range of environmental, social and health issues. Ultimately, the active pursuit of the health and wellbeing of all members of the Asia-Pacific region will create a more prosperous future for all of us.