The importance of healthcare as an essential service has never been lost on APAC policymakers. But the carnage wrought by this millennium’s largest Black Swan event – the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – has catalyzed a major shift in the wider public’s expectations of healthcare providers, thereby prompting some serious introspection within the proverbial corridors of power.

“The prioritization of healthcare is changing over time,” said Saskia Kendall, director of health Asia-Pacific at Sandpiper Communications. “The combination of an aging population in Asia-Pacific and the increase in a variety of chronic diseases is driving changes in the way we are thinking about healthcare.”

Kendall was speaking on a Provoke Media / Sandpiper Communications virtual panel last week which examined changing public attitudes towards healthcare in Asia-Pacific. The discussion centered around a Sandpiper research report offering valuable insight into people’s healthcare priorities and overall satisfaction with respect to services, providing a platform for a deeper conversation about the role played by communications, collaboration and the patient voice. 

The findings were based on the opinions of 12,000 individuals from 11 territories surveyed in 2019 and 2021. Last year’s results indicated that healthcare was a top policy priority in almost all territories, representing a seismic shift from 2019 when healthcare was only a top three priority in half of territories polled. This change can almost single-handedly be attributed to the pandemic.

“Going forward, it’s important to evaluate our healthcare system and implement a predict and prevent model,” said Kylie Park, director of corporate affairs and advocacy relations at Amgen. “How we can improve the health stock of our communities overall so we are better placed to understand these health shocks.” 

The report also noted that the level of healthcare professional expertise was the leading reason for satisfaction, while cost was the premier reason for dissatisfaction. Moreover, ability to access care was the second common reason for satisfaction and the third top reason for dissatisfaction, highlighting the mixed reviews and experiences of healthcare services in the region. 

As a potential remedy to streamline efforts and develop robust health services, the panelists unanimously agreed that the patient voice must be incorporated in key decision-making.

“Expertise is challenging and an impossible goal to aspire to when it comes to rare disorders, for example,” said Dr Ritu Jain, president of Debra International. “In such cases, the patient is the expert. The patient has to be in the driving seat when it comes to their own health. If the patient is not treated as an equal partner, no healthcare system can succeed.”

“You have patient groups that don’t have capacity and knowledge to communicate what they need or to use resources that governments or other stakeholders might give them,” added Robert Magyar, senior executive director for China at Sandpiper. “Capacity building in terms of patient voice is important. It’s about infographics, channels to help policymakers get the message [across].”

Dr Jain went a step further, suggesting that organizations should encourage patients to forge partnerships in the form of single condition national and regional alliances, bringing forth a unified voice to more effectively advocate for their needs and priorities. 

Interestingly, the report found that six out of 10 people recognized pharmaceutical companies – which have a chequered reputational history at best – as being one of the major players in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. In Japan, they were the most recognized stakeholder, ranked above healthcare professionals and governments. 

Magyar opined that while Big Pharma had done a stellar job in mitigating the consequences arising from the pandemic over the past two years, it remains incumbent upon Asia-Pacific governments to engage in responsible communication with consumers to ensure those benefits aren’t squandered.

“Every time there is a new vaccine or innovative treatment that emerges, whether a technological or scientific breakthrough, it creates positive messaging,” he said. “But inevitably, the next question is, ‘how expensive is it’? This ensures there is a negative connotation to everything relating to healthcare. The focus needs to be on the economic benefits of new treatments. Patient groups may also want to be part of the discussion because the financing of therapies, drugs and devices affects them most.” 

Even as the research suggests that almost seven out of 10 people believe government is financially responsible for healthcare in their territory, Dr. Jain pointed out that costs will continue to rise. 

“We can wish that governments will take care of all healthcare expenses, but that’s simply not possible,” she concluded. “If they do, it’ll translate into higher taxes and filter down to the consumer. Industry isn’t here to improve the climate or do charitable work; every organization has an agenda in mind. But if governments, industry and patients come together and embrace multi-stakeholder conversation, we can find innovative solutions and common ground to try and bring down costs.”