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When you think of Southeast Asia, one of the last things you may think about is the health and nutrition of its people. Mostly over the past few years, most of the growth and development of the region have been positive. The topic of health and nutrition was something that was barely mentioned regarding the young and growing populations of Vietnam, Thailand, The Philippines, etc. The cultures are still mostly agrarian, and one would think the vigorous activities of daily life are enough to meet any sort of daily exercise and nutritional needs.

However, over the past 10 years, health and wellness are changing, and it’s not all for the better. While the data shows positive changes regarding malnutrition and infant mortality, maladies such as obesity and diabetes are increasing at a rapid pace in young children (and adults) in many parts of Southeast Asia. For example, in Vietnam, the prevalence of diabetes is growing at alarming rates and has almost doubled within the past 10 years. Currently, it’s estimated that one in every 20 Vietnamese adults has diabetes. In addition, the number of people with a pre-diabetic condition is three times higher than those with diabetes. [1]

It’s true that with a growing economy comes lifestyle changes. As countries develop to middle-income countries, where the average income increases and urbanization occurs, unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles will become more common. Recently even, the World Population Review unveiled on its website the “Obesity Rates” of all countries. In an introductory note, it singled out a particular area. It said: “Some regions of the world, such as Southeast Asia, have seen alarming increases in obesity rates within the past five years.”  

What Opportunities Exist for foreign companies and health providers?

The topic of health and nutrition is just starting to begin more openly in this part of the world. Lately, more governments are sponsoring health care reform initiatives and participating in a more open dialogue about their various health problems. But what about involvement from foreign companies and health providers? Are there more opportunities for developed countries to assist?

Health care delivery in Southeast Asia has just recently begun to rely on significant private enterprise, and seeking private care is now visible across all socioeconomic levels, not just the very rich. The public healthcare system doesn’t have enough resources to modernize the healthcare sector on its own. For example, much of the healthcare improvement in Thailand over the past fifteen years has come from investment from Europe and places outside of Southeast Asia. As a result, this has helped shape the way healthcare is financed and organized.

More opportunities continue to exist in healthcare education, primary care service, nutritional supplements, and disease management. Over the past few years, Korean and Japanese companies have invested in the market in a variety of different areas ranging from healthcare products to healthcare service providers, but there is not enough supply to meet the growing demand. Educated consumers in these markets are now looking for alternatives while governments also look to do more in prevention and education.

As stated previously, the healthcare sectors in these countries are not fully developed, but they also are not fully transparent. Therefore, interested parties require a significant amount of fact-finding before entering the market.  However, opportunities exist to help the growing healthcare needs in these countries and outside entities can have an immediate impact.

James Raussen is Managing Director of SEA Solutions, a consulting firm in Southeast Asia. He can be reached at www.solutions-sea.com

[1] “The growing burden of diabetes in Vietnam”, World Health Organization, 7 April 2016.

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