The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the effects of health inequity across the globe. While some countries are unable to curb the spread of the virus and care for those infected due to a lack of systems and capacity, others have struggled to roll out vaccination programmes due to limited vaccine supplies.
Asia, in particular, is a hot spot for emerging infectious diseases because of its population density and how close humans live to nature.
To address the pressing health challenges faced by this continent, the SingHealth Duke-NUS Global Health Institute (SDGHI) was launched in 2019, with an aim to advance the health and wellbeing of people in Southeast Asia and beyond.
“Asia is home to almost 4.6 billion people—nearly 60 per cent of the total world population—and its population density far exceeds that of other regions. Yet, most healthcare institutions studying global health exist outside Asia,” said Clinical Associate Professor Tan Hiang Khoon, who was appointed as SDGHI’s Director at the start of this year. He added that the Institute is uniquely positioned to bring an Asian perspective to solve some of the region’s pressing health challenges.
Beyond addressing health challenges, the Institute is also focused on developing future leaders in global health through innovative solutions, programmes and partnerships.
With COVID-19 hitting hard, local economies and the lives of people in Asia have worsened. While this has brought the impact of communicable diseases to the front of minds, the disease load and effects of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer are far larger. According to the World Health Organisation, 68.8 per cent of fatalities in Southeast Asia were linked to non-communicable diseases in 2019.
“This has a direct impact on a nation’s economic capacity and ultimately the world economy,” said Tan.
As part of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre (AMC), SDGHI harnesses the capacity of SingHealth—Singapore’s largest cluster of healthcare institutions—and Duke-NUS to advance interdisciplinary global health research and capacity development across Singapore and its neighbouring countries.
With funding support from the Khoo Teck Puat Foundation from 2019 to 2021, the Institute’s activities have extended to 14 Asian countries with more than 70 active projects.
Mutual and far-reaching benefits
For one of its projects, SDGHI dispatched teams of doctors and nurses to India to help enhance maternal and child health services. Since the project’s start, the enhanced service has helped to halve the number of women dying during pregnancy and childbirth.
“Many of the mortalities and comorbidities we see in the region are preventable with the proper support and infrastructure in place,” said Tan.
When the team returned home from India, they left with new ideas of low-cost alternatives that could counter rising healthcare costs.
Tan said, “Our medical teams get to experience the true essence of providing care under challenging circumstances and learn to think out of the box, improvise and devise solutions in less-than-ideal situations. It also helps to build the resilience and adaptability of our own healthcare workers.”
Moving forward, Tan hopes that SDGHI can help the AMC to form a global health alliance with regional partners to foster an ecosystem of innovation and knowledge-sharing with a view to increase healthcare standards and achieve health equity. He hopes that this network will catalyse opportunities to conduct research into health problems relevant to Asian populations and devise solutions that are relevant and scalable within varying economic conditions.
Tan plans to do that by leveraging the high smartphone penetration rate in Asia. Using digital tools, data science and artificial intelligence, platforms can be created to increase access to knowledge and health services in far corners of the region.
He added that it would also be imperative to introduce systematic programmes to evaluate the effectiveness of these platforms and continuously improve them to stay relevant amid the ever-evolving healthcare landscape.
“The biggest upside in supporting global health initiatives is that the cost to implement programmes is relatively low in Asia, but they have the potential to impact the lives of half the world’s population. Every life saved adds productive years to a country,” said Tan, adding that support from donors throughout the years has played an integral part in enabling many of the SDGHI’s global initiatives.
Adapted by Dionne Seah from: Addressing Asia's pressing health challenges, from an Asian perspective