Posted on Aug 09, 2012 by Sergio Ulloa
The rise of the middle class in East Asia is proving to be a boon for private healthcare providers. Kuala Lumpur based IHH illustrates this nicely. In their recent IPO, which was 132 times oversubscribed, IHH raised more than USD 2 billion and the shares climbed by more than 10% in the first few days of trading. The value of the company stands at around USD 8 billion. IHH is now the second largest hospital group on the planet, and the largest outside the USA.
Owned by Khazanah Nasional Bhd, a state owned investment arm, IHH tells a story of unprecedented growth. Khazanah started their move into the healthcare sector in 2005, when they bought a 13.2% stake in India's largest private hospital group, Apollo Hospitals Enterprise. A string of acquisitions and investments in the following years have enabled IHH to build itself into the powerhouse that it is today, able to ride the wave of opportunity created by the growing economies of East Asia.
According to Frost & Sullivan, the market for healthcare in Asia Pacific region will grow by 8 % until at least 2015, and IHH already has plans to add another 3300 new beds and 17 hospital developments in China, Singapore, Malaysia and India, as well as expansion plans Turkey, Egypt and Lybia by the end of 2016.
The success of IHH has been largely due to their ability to fill the gap created by lagging national healthcare infrastructure and rising demand for quality medical services in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. The strategic positioning of their Singapore based hospitals, all within a relatively short 3-4 hour flight from Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Bangladesh, has created a healthcare hub which IHH has been well positioned to exploit.
IHH is now applying their winning formula to expansion in other developing regions of the world. It recently bought a 60 percent stake in the owner of Turkey's largest hospital group, Acibadem Saglik Hizmetleri & Ticaret AS, which it bought for $826 million. Turkey is conveniently situated within easy reach of Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, much like Singapore is to East Asia. IHH hopes to develop their Turkish operation into another global healthcare hub, alongside Singapore and Malaysia.
The growth of private healthcare, especially in the developing world, is certainly a good thing, providing top medical services to those who can afford it, and easing some of the burden on national healthcare systems by providing an alternative source of treatment and the associated networks of training and development facilities. IHH owns a private medical university and a nursing training centre in Malaysia. Private healthcare is also the incubator for new healthcare technologies and techniques, as public sector healthcare often doesn't have the budget or the staff to invest in much other than proven technologies and treatments.
There is a downside to this success story though. The draw of shiny new hospitals, new technology, a better working environment and higher salaries is proving to be too much for many healthcare professionals to resist, and is causing a slow but steady exodus from the public health systems all over the world, from the poorest and most underdeveloped, to the wealthiest and most advanced, basically without exception. Patients in private healthcare enjoy the luxury of not having to wait for treatment, of being treated by doctors who are well paid, have had enough sleep and who have enough time in their day to carefully consider a patient's diagnosis and treatment.
The state of public health services is not quite so utopian. Even in somewhere as developed as Hong Kong, the public Health Authority struggles to find staff, and is left with no choice but to require the staff it does have to work unsustainably long hours for pay which is well below the equivalent in the private sector. This situation is not only making it difficult to convince new personnel to work in the public sector, but also creates an environment that is prone to mistakes and accidents.
President of the Hong Kong Doctors Union Henry Yeung Chiu-fat said many young doctors nowadays want easier jobs. Their preference for less stressful fields has exacerbated staffing problems. For example, becoming an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) is much more competitive with less-demanding on-call work than internal medicine or emergency room jobs.
Public hospitals In Malaysia, Thailand, China, India, UAE, South Africa, Australia, and even Europe have all been struggling with this issue, with some areas being so short of staff that they are having to close departments when a particular specialist is away for any reason.
While some of the problem can be alleviated by increased salaries and reform of health departments to be able to offer more flexibility to staff, there is another factor brought on by the rise in private medical services which could make the brain drain even worse.
The option for overseas treatment offered by a growing number of private medical insurance companies, as well as the relatively cheaper cost of treatment in developing countries, has created a massive growth in medical tourism. This lucrative market requires staff who are not only medically qualified, but who are also multi-lingual and culturally sensitive. This is a relatively unique demand of the private sector, since public sector hospitals treat a relatively small percentage of foreign language speakers.
This begs the question: If the unprecedented growth in international private health services continues, which it probably will (IHH alone are building 17 new hospitals), and the private sector continues to draw in much of the top talent in the medical industry, how will the public health services maintain a high standard of care, with fewer experienced personnel and many young doctors looking elsewhere for employment?
The crisis is very real, and there needs to be some serious thinking done on the part of the public health systems, especially those of developing countries. Stop gap measures will only work for so long, as human doctors and nurses will get tired and frustrated which can lead to them making potentially serious mistakes or quitting.
In China the problem is just as real, although slightly different. The private sector is still very small in comparison to public health system, instead, the problem China faces has to do with the urban - rural divide. China has recently spent more than USD 100 billion to try and bridge this gap, providing health insurance cover to 98% of rural Chinese, and ensuring access to improved primary healthcare facilities in a massive investment in rural infrastructure. While a large proportion of the rural population now have access to modern medical facilities, and are now more able to afford it, the State has still not been able to convince doctors and nursing staff to choose to work in more rural locations. Any career minded doctor in China would choose to work in one of the top tier city hospitals, where their case load will give them more interesting work with increased opportunity for career advancement, and where there are more opportunities for generating secondary income with some private practise on the side. In Shanghai alone 9 new hospitals are being built, which will all need to be staffed. A position in the rural areas is definitely not on the average Chinese doctor's wish list, and the State faces some serious challenges in encouraging doctors to fill rural postings.
Unless creative solutions can be put in place, it seems that staffing issues in the public sector only going to increase around the world. With so many nations now facing economic turmoil, a significant increase in public health spending is not going to be easily managed. While investing more money into public health spending and salaries may alleviate the problem, other factors are involved in many cases.
What is certain is that all this bodes very well for the private healthcare industry. Being able to obtain first class medical care is going to become more dependent on whether patients are covered by private health insurance, and the public systems could decide, as the NHS in the UK and the Health Services Executive in Ireland have, to use the private sector to take some of the burden of healthcare off of public sector facilities. Add to all these factors the ageing world population, and it looks like the ideal environment for further growth in the private healthcare industry.
The largest challenge facing private healthcare providers may end up being that of finding and keeping their staff. Inevitable rises in salaries due to industry competition, are sure to be a major factor in the profitability and affordability of private healthcare. However, medical care will still be a necessity for everyone, and with a growing middle class in many developing parts of the world, an increasing number of people will be willing and able to pay for quality care.