Economic Update
Brunei Darussalam is to ramp up medical research in an effort to combat the rise in lifestyle-related health problems in the Sultanate, while also looking to profit from the burgeoning health tourism industry.

In recent years, there has been a shift in the health-needs of Brunei Darussalam, with an increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer and obesity putting a strain on the state-funded system.

In order to better deal with these issues and to meet the strategic objectives of the nation’s vision of a healthy and productive community, there had to be an increased focus on research and development, the deputy minister of health, Dato Hj Hazair, told a seminar of medical and administrative professionals on October 29.

“Research and development will be incorporated into our internal process in the context of scaling up efforts to achieve our strategic themes, namely; a comprehensive health care system that emphasises service excellence, a nation that embraces and practices a healthy lifestyle; sustainability through resource optimisation, innovation and excellence; effective policies and regulations that ensure protection for all; transparent and proactive governance,” he said.

This commitment to stepping up medical research is one of the measures outlined in Brunei Darussalam’s latest health policy document, 2035 Health Vision and Strategy, launched by the Ministry of Health in July. One of the key elements of the policy paper focused on dealing with “obesity, cancer, heart diseases, diabetics, tobacco control, oral health, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases and other preventable risk factors”.

To achieve this, the national health research agenda has to be very clear, said Dato Hj Hazair, as it plays a significant role in orienting investments and performance at the national level.

The need for further research and the developing of plans to combat non-communicable diseases was highlighted at a cardiology conference in Bandar Seri Begawan on November 8. According to Dr Hj Nazar Luqman, a cardiology specialist and the head of the Cardiology Department at the Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Saleha (RIPAS), there has been a sharp rise in the number of cases of heart failure, due to lifestyle and Sultanate’s ageing population.

“There is ample evidence that hospitalisations for heart failure, the number of deaths associated with it and cost of treatment have significantly increased over the last few decades,” he said. “In Brunei Darussalam, some 30% of cardiology admissions in RIPAS Hospital are due to heart failure. Causes of heart failure like hypertension, diabetes, coronary artery disease and others are quite prevalent and the elderly population has doubled over the last decade.”

While lifestyle illnesses will continue to be a matter of concern for the Sultanate’s public health system, they could also prove to be a revenue earner, with plans in the pipeline to stake a claim for a slice of the international medical and wellness tourism market.

Medical tourism is fast becoming a booming niche segment in the health industry across the region, with countries such as Malaysia and Thailand leading the way in attracting foreigners. On average, Thailand hosts 1m health tourists a year, generating revenue of more than $1bn annually, while Malaysian officials are estimating that its medical facilities will treat up to 625,000 overseas visitors in 2010, almost double the total of 2008.

While Brunei Darussalam is not in a position to contemplate such numbers, by virtue of the small size of its domestic health sector, at least one of the country’s hospitals is looking to develop this niche. Private health service provider Jerudong Park Medical Centre (JPMC) is planning to promote the Sultanate as a medical tourism spot and the centre itself as an option for foreign patients.

According to Tan Seang Tak, JPMC’s general manager, Brunei Darussalam already has the necessary infrastructure to enter the health tourism market.

“Brunei Darussalam can be a very good destination for medical tourism because of good medical facilities available here,” Tan said in an interview with local media in mid-October.

The JPMC is now working with local travel agencies and hotels to offer full holiday and treatment packages to foreign visitors, combining fitness and leisure along with health care, said Tan.

JPMC already serves the foreign health sector, with some 5% of the centre’s revenue coming from overseas clients, mainly from nearby Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

By promoting the concept of medical and wellness tourism, Brunei Darussalam would be able to further diversify its economy, utilise existing facilities and generate additional income, some of which could be devoted to help improve the health of the nation.