6 October 2021

Driving affordable healthcare reform in South-east Asia

The burden on Southeast Asia’s healthcare systems has been building for decades. Emerging from the pandemic, Corporate Treasurers in the healthcare sector can play a key part in activating change.

Priya Kini, Head of Global Banking, HSBC Singapore

With two-thirds of the world’s middle class expected to live in Asia by 2030, and life expectancy increasing, the healthcare sector was, even pre-pandemic, set to see unprecedented demand. Yet the burden on Southeast Asia is arguably the heaviest to shift.

Covid-19 is a trigger for players across the entire value chain to take a collective step in creating a more affordable and future-proofed sector for its patients. And treasurers lie at the centre of supporting that change.

The burden on Southeast Asia

A report by Solidiance revealed that in nearly all Asean nations the growth of cost in healthcare per capita has been outpacing the growth in GDP per capita. That means that the cost of healthcare is growing at a pace that it unsustainable. Southeast Asia’s challenge is compounded by the region’s unique urban-rural divide and fragmented geographies, encompassing over 25,000 islands.

Looking ahead, it is clear that the sector needs to urgently address the issues of affordability and access, and it needs to attract more public and private investment to do that. Healthcare players can leverage the current digital impetus induced by the pandemic to streamline internal processes and, in doing so, reduce costs for themselves and for consumers. Treasury functions play a crucial role in driving and enabling such reforms, often pulling on immediate and long term levers to do so.

Short term fixes for long term patient-centric gains

As incomes rise and populations age, we will see increased demand on healthcare providers not only in urban areas but also across smaller centres. To address this, the sector will have to establish a more inclusive, patient-centric system which ensures better interactions including via digital channels while maintaining the quality of treatment outcomes and data security protection, all of this at a lower cost and with added immediacy.

Healthcare companies in Asia were already investing in digital, patient-centric capabilities prior to the pandemic, and unsurprisingly, that trend has accelerated. A recent survey revealed that 74 per cent of healthcare companies have sped up their digital transformation and it is estimated that investments in digital healthcare are expected to grow to US$22.5 billion by 2025.

Solutions created for the pandemic need to be used to harness this patient-centricity for the long term.

For instance, in maintaining social distancing, omni-channel sales have proved to be successful in treating patients remotely via tele-medicine and enabling order placements by pharmacies and clinics though platform based omni-channel sales. On the other hand, the rise of real-time payments and e-wallets in Asia has enabled a greater outreach and a shift towards direct-to-market business models for healthcare companies. Treasury functions at healthcare companies have rapidly adapted to these payment models.

The rollout of international vaccine programmes could also be used to overcome weaknesses in supply chain resilience. Vaccine passports – if used – are a route to developing greater patient touchpoints and payment routes where governments, pharmaceuticals and immigration authorities are testing the vaccine, supply chain and inoculation authenticity. The technology and processes used for these could have many more applications in the sector.

Digitising without, and within

With increased pressure from patients and governments to improve the healthcare experience, healthcare companies also need to look internally to improve efficiency and lower cost of delivery of their services to help make healthcare more affordable to a larger population.

The Asean nations employ on average 18 per cent of their public healthcare personnel in non-patient facing functions. Automating back-office processes will release overheads and enable healthcare providers to reallocate resources.

Whether digitising a single function like collections or the entire treasury operation, organisations can redirect resources once dedicated to manual tasks as well as speed the supply chain and reduce sales outstanding.

The use of Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) is taking shape across many sectors and has potential to pay a significant role in the healthcare sector, for instance in in areas such as authorised sharing of medical records between doctors or other healthcare service providers in the chain. DLT can not only provide better access to and management of data, but will speed up the processes of sharing, avoid duplication and help save costs. Similarly, in the pharmaceuticals sector, blockchain can track medication throughout the supply chain, verifying that hospitals and patients receive the correct drugs.

Corporate Treasurers are already beginning to drive a lot of this change – whether through streamlining their processes, digitising patient and vendor payments or introducing new technologies in their own functions.

Banks also have a key role in supporting this change; whether through addressing financing needs, driving collaboration between partners or introducing new technologies to treasury functions.


With vaccine rollouts increasing, healthcare players must not lose sight of the reform that was already required pre-Pandemic. Covid-19 must be the catalyst for change, and cannot be an excuse to make short term fixes.

Treasurers have the opportunity to create sustainable, long term solutions within their businesses that will streamline functions, support long-term technologies and enable fast and effective cash management decision-making. Ultimately by doing so, healthcare players can move towards their end goal of a truly holistic and patient-centric business model.

A contribution piece by Priya Kini, Head of Global Banking, HSBC Singapore was first published in The Business Times ASEAN Portal on 6th October 2021.