The global healthcare sector is undergoing a process of evolution more rapid and more dramatic than at any time in its history. As state-run health services, private providers and individual healthcare professionals seek to deliver high-quality care in an effective and efficient way, they do so in a continually changing social, political and economic landscape, which throws up enormous challenges. The most prominent of these are our growing and aging global population, and the emergence of new health risks driven by changes in lifestyle, diet, pollution and air quality. And of course, overshadowing all this, looms the spectre of rising costs and squeezed budgets.
Rising costs – the flip side
The “problem” of rising healthcare costs is frequently cited by media in strongly negative terms. And if this were driven solely by administrative inefficiencies and demand-side pressures, this might be a fair view. But it isn’t. Much of the increased cost results from expensive new technologies that represent a step change in medical treatment – technologies and pharmaceuticals that enable doctors to treat formerly untreatable conditions, and to vastly improve the quality of life of countless patients around the world. Yet few would argue that ongoing cost increases are viable in the medium to long term. So the challenge for healthcare providers is to make these new treatments available to a broad population in a sustainable way.
The economic benefits of globalisation are compelling, yet many countries that have experienced rapid growth in incomes in recent years have also begun to experience many of the health issues associated with long-standing “first world” nations. In the USA and Western Europe, a change in lifestyle has been accompanied by a rise in cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, and more recently, dementia. And these chronic conditions are now becoming ever more prevalent in countries like China and India, where millions of people have experienced a significant change in lifestyle in recent years.
The rapid spread of communicable disease is another downside of globalisation, as improved transport infrastructure allows infected individuals to travel across continents before their first symptoms appear. Television viewers have become used to seeing air passengers wearing face masks, as fears around swine flu or bird flu sweep the globe. Yet the reality is that developments in medicine are actually keeping pace with the threats, and new vaccines are helping to control more “traditional” threats such as malaria and dengue fever.
Efficient and equitable healthcare provision
The challenge for all global healthcare stakeholders is to find new models of delivery that fully harness the power of new technology. Governments and private sector providers must develop efficient delivery models that maximise health benefits yet ensure access to healthcare is equitable. Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, as providers must operate within very different social, cultural and economic environments, state by state. Yet all providers share a common goal of achieving efficiency and fair delivery, and they must adopt a forward-looking approach that quickly adapts to new challenges such the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections.
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