We must capture the rise in global demand for health created by covid19 to create jobs and draw foreign exchange.
Our unemployment rate is estimated to have shot up to as much as 15 per cent, according to economist Roger Hosein. That means almost 85,000 people have lost their jobs in the last few months. Many of those jobs are not coming back. We need new sources of growth.
Health and wellness are growing fast, alongside healthy foods, according to Boston Consulting Group’s March 2020 Consumer Sentiment Survey.
We must pivot quickly. The private healthcare industry, which as of 2015 accounted for more than $4 billion in annual revenue (according to the Ministry of Health), is currently reeling from the shock of covid19. Patients and clients have postponed hip surgeries, dental appointments, personal training and yoga classes. Doctors and patients are equally worried about infection.
This is where technology can step in: to bridge the gap between fear of covid19 and a pent-up demand for health and wellness.
Waiting rooms may be empty, but consultancy Frost & Sullivan reckons that telehealth – remote medicine – will grow by 64.3 per cent in 2020 in the US, and will grow by a staggering seven-fold in the next five years. Healthcare professionals can use existing technology platforms to immediately increase their reach.
The real opportunity, of course, is the potential to export health and wellness services. Imagine if a thousand health professionals were seeing patients remotely across the region, each earning up to US$4,000 a month: we could earn more than $48 million a year very quickly.
Local healthcare groups have not waited. I’ve spoken to large healthcare companies who already earn up to 30 per cent of their revenue in USD from regional health tourists or presence in other countries. Once it is safe to do so, healthcare professionals can tap new patient bases developed using telehealth to bring significantly more health tourists to TT.
We have a clear regional advantage: with a strong medical school and well-educated doctors, psychologists, trainers and nutritionists.
Of course, nothing is that easy. Aspiring health services exporters must still navigate a mire of red-tape and regulations. In our region alone each tiny island has its own medical board and professional body, and each offers the pitfalls of work and tax regulations. Then there is the question of promoting our healthcare product – difficult when data on quality of care is so limited, particularly in the private sector.
This is where the government must step in. First, it must form a special health promotion task force. This will use all diplomatic and other channels to ensure that TT’s health professions are automatically cross-registered with regional (and even international) bodies. It will directly support any health professional in TT to help them navigate any regulatory hurdles to export their services. It will also proactively promote TT’s healthcare brand, as Colombia’s export agencies and health ministry does for theirs.
Second, we cannot effectively promote our healthcare product without private, secure data on quality of care. The government must introduce a single health ID for the public sector and a single inter-operable electronic health records system that can tap into records systems being used by the private sector – similar to the UK’s National Health Service – Spine. In parallel it must update regulation to ensure that international standards are being used to protect patients’ data. Data must flow through secure integrated systems as opposed to consumer messaging or videoconferencing platforms.
Of course, this data will be useless without research. That is why the government must kick-start research by setting up its own research body, accrediting and subsidising private research. With proper data, we will be able to improve – and importantly demonstrate – accredited quality of care to international patients.
This will enable the public and private sectors to share data to reduce costs and improve care. For example, if a patient has health insurance, the procedure is available in the private sector and the condition is not urgent, a patient can be required to seek covered private-sector treatment prior to presenting at a public sector facility.
By combining this approach with a new policy allowing private health insurance to be tax deductible, this will create incentives for private growth while saving taxpayer money.
Each dollar spent on the health industry has triple the benefit. It creates a dollar in economic value, a dollar in health welfare and a dollar in improved productivity. Covid19 has woken us up to what matters: our health must come first.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.