Under-investment in early detection and treatment of disease must be addressed: WEF panellists

Testing rates in low- and middle-income countries, which are on average 10 times less than in high-income countries. PHOTO: REUTERS
(Clockwise from top left) Moderated by ST editor Warren Fernandez, the session includes panellists Pascal Soriot, Catharina Boehme, Kevin Washington and Mazen S. Darvazeh. PHOTO: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/YOUTUBE

SINGAPORE - Under-investment in early detection and treatment is a key area to address as countries prepare their healthcare systems for the next pandemic, panellists said on Monday (Jan 25).

At a virtual discussion organised by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Ms Catharina Boehme, chief executive of the Switzerland-based Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, said the world has paid a price for the "chronic under-investment" in testing and diagnostic infrastructure.

"Testing is the backbone for a resilient healthcare system - it is really our eyes and ears, and for every outbreak, it will be our first line of defence," she said.

Echoing Ms Boehme's point, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot said a key lesson learnt from the current Covid-19 crisis was the need to invest in prevention, early detection and treatment of diseases.

Only about 3 per cent of the total health expenditure among OECD countries is spent on prevention, he noted.

"We always say it's better to prevent than to cure or treat… (but) we tend to wait for people to become sick to try and arrest that, as opposed to detecting disease early and preventing it," he said, giving the example of chronic kidney disease.

The panellists were responding to a question from moderator Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times, on what can be done to prepare for future pandemics.

The discussion, titled Building Crisis-Resistant Healthcare Systems in a post-Covid World, was part of the week-long Davos Agenda, a virtual gathering of world leaders for high-level talks hosted by the WEF.

Ms Boehme said that while the industry and the World Health Organisation's Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator initiative has moved fast in developing tests for mass testing, "so has the virus", as new strains emerge that are potentially more transmissible.

She also flagged the issue of low testing rates in low- and middle-income countries, which are on average 10 times less than in high-income countries. "This situation has to change, not just to exit this crisis, but to prevent future ones," she added.

Another area of improvement is in shifting care from hospitals to outpatient services, such as general practitioners, as well as using digital tools like telemedicine, said Mr Soriot. Doing so can help reach patients who are reluctant to go to the hospital, and improve productivity.

"We also need a shift in mindset, and consider health as an asset that you invest in, rather than as a cost you try to minimise," he added.

Mr Kevin Washington, president and chief executive of youth organisation YMCA USA, stressed the need to strengthen the connection between the community and those delivering healtcare.

In the US, systemic racism has broken trust that is needed to ensure people of low-income and different backgrounds engage in the healthcare system, he said.

To build up trust requires working with organisations that are long-established in the community, such as the YMCA, churches and other non-profit organisations, he added.

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Mr Mazen Darwazah, executive vice-chairman of London-based Hikma Pharmaceuticals, said the world has to live up to providing better standards of healthcare for all, especially vulnerable communities in the Arab countries which were the hardest hit.

On collaboration in the current pandemic, Mr Soriot said that there have been both good and bad examples so far. "It could have been a First of July, Independence Day kind of moment, but unfortunately it wasn't, because there was a bit of 'me first' behaviour," he said.

"But I can see that things are changing and international collaboration is emerging in areas of identifying early signs of new infections, new pandemics, and looking at mutations."

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