What are Asia Pacific countries getting right in the fight against cancer?


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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Rachel Frizberg, Area Head Asia Pacific, Roche Pharma

  • As healthcare systems focus on COVID-19, other areas – such as cancer care – are being disrupted.
  • A new report examines the readiness of countries in the APAC region to address the cancer challenge.
  • Its results highlight which approaches are working best – and what the rest of the world can learn.

The battle against COVID-19 is dominating our attention right now — and rightly so. The pandemic is impacting economies, societies and individuals across all sectors, but especially in healthcare. However, while we focus on tackling the pandemic, it is critical that we don’t lose sight of our efforts to address the devastating impact of other diseases, such as cancer.

With healthcare systems focused on the fight against COVID-19, we are witnessing disruption across the spectrum of cancer care and delivery. There are multiple contributing factors, ranging from closures of screening programmes to public transport lockdowns hindering access to health facilities, delays to important consultations leading to disease progression and high rates of sickness among health workers dramatically reducing the numbers of available staff. Cancer patients are also more vulnerable to becoming severely ill or dying from COVID-19 and many, understandably, fear coming into hospitals or clinics during this time.

Nowhere is the battle against cancer fought more bitterly than in Asia Pacific (APAC). Almost half of the world’s cancer cases are found here, and by 2030 the number of people battling cancer is expected to surge by around 35%, with mortality rising by almost 40%. COVID-19 has emphasised the importance of making health systems robust and sustainable in the long-term, so that the impact of care delivery for non-communicable diseases like cancer is minimized during this and future outbreaks.


What’s working?

When addressing significant public health issues like COVID-19, cardiovascular disease or cancer can sometimes feel like an insurmountable challenge for countries faced with limited resources and competing priorities.

A new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), supported by Roche, analyses the readiness of 10 APAC countries to address the cancer challenge. The report highlights existing gaps and progress made – with recommendations on how to boost this progress towards more sustainable and equitable cancer care. Advances in cancer planning and preparedness vary across countries, but the improvements highlighted span several areas – from research and policy development to the expansion of national cancer registries and implementation of universal health coverage (UHC) programmes.

Improved planning

Australia ranks highest of all countries evaluated for overall cancer preparedness, followed by Malaysia, South Korea, China and Thailand. This success is due in part to these countries demonstrating strong examples of cancer registries, which play a vital role in generating meaningful, evidence-based, long-term planning for cancer. The Philippines stands out as one of the only lower-middle-income countries evaluated with a comprehensive cancer plan.

Increase in healthcare spend

We also see a strong link between a country’s cancer readiness and its overall healthcare spending. Indonesia and Malaysia showed strong commitment in this area; they registered the strongest growth in healthcare spending of all the countries evaluated, with average annual increases of 5.7% and 3.2% respectively. The WHO notes higher government spending on health is also associated with lowering income inequality, in particular for fast-growing countries.

Spending more on health is a way to reduce inequality
Spending more on health is a way to reduce inequality
Image: WHO Health Expenditure Report 2019

Progress towards UHC

UHC generates benefits to societies far beyond the health sector, strengthens health systems governance and improves overall population health outcomes. Across Asia, positive steps have been taken towards universal access to cancer care. Thailand demonstrates strong implementation of UHC programmes alongside higher-income countries like Australia, South Korea and Japan. Thailand is also the only country evaluated in which all cancer medicines were found to be fully accessible and reimbursable via their public health system, an impressive achievement unmatched even in highly developed nations. This increased focus on UHC programmes is in line with the recent WHO report that recommends the inclusion of prevention, early diagnosis, screening and appropriate treatment of non-communicable diseases in essential personalised healthcare services and UHC benefit packages.

Accelerate innovation – even through challenging times

There’s no getting away from the fact that the COVID-19 crisis has magnified healthcare challenges for populations and, in turn, policy and decision-makers. So how do we double down on this progress in a post-COVID-19 world to ensure we continue along a faster, upwards trajectory?

Gaps in service availability experienced by middle-income countries like China, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, including the under-provision of equipment, oncology specialists and infrastructure, are a major area of opportunity. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that digital technology can play a critical role in addressing these gaps. The pandemic has forced healthcare systems to adopt new ways of working, to ensure cancer patients continue to receive essential care. Places like Thailand and Hong Kong are reaching more patients in need through the launch of virtual clinics and teleconsultations for remote areas. Australia and China are harnessing artificial intelligence to aid faster, more accurate diagnosis.

There is also a clear need to establish strong, cross-sector partnerships to collaborate on research and invest in areas like big data analytics and personalised medicine to significantly improve patient outcomes.

In Taiwan, for instance, Roche is partnering with the government to foster personalized healthcare with a focus on tailoring cancer treatment to individual patients for the best outcomes. The objective is to provide targeted treatment through precise genomic analysis and to reduce unnecessary medical expenses while improving the quality of healthcare.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about healthcare value and spending?

Each year, $3.2 trillion is spent on global healthcare making little or no impact on good health outcomes.

To address this issue, the World Economic Forum created the Global Coalition for Value in Healthcare to accelerate value-based health systems transformation.

This council partners with governments, leading companies, academia, and experts from around the world to co-design and pilot innovative new approaches to person-centered healthcare.

Work in partnership

While progress is undoubtedly being made in tackling the cancer challenge across APAC, there is still a long way to go. Excess cancer mortality remains a serious concern for lower-and middle-income countries. Cancer not only takes lives but also can result in severe economic hardship.

As someone who has spent a significant amount of time in healthcare and seen – first-hand – the devastating impact of the pandemic on cancer patients, I believe that a data-driven future holds the most potential to build resilient health systems for the future. Better data can help us work smarter and faster to respond to issues like COVID-19 and future health challenges. Digital and personalised healthcare can play an important role in advancing UHC, making health systems more sustainable, efficient and accessible – and allowing policy-makers to better optimise resources.

Reducing the cancer burden requires an integrated, cross-sector, global response. This means creating systemic change in our healthcare ecosystems, and reorienting our relationships with the government, the outside world, and even with each other. While testing the limits of our health systems, COVID-19 has also highlighted the incredible achievements possible when we all band together.

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