It is but a year until the planned launch of the ASEAN Economic Community. This year, most of the region’s 10 economies should achieve high single-digit growth and both production and consumption are expected to grow further. Yet while this growth has lifted millions out of poverty and the mood is buoyant, economic inequality is widening and around 10% of people still live on less than $1.25 a day.

Our region needs to ask itself how it can ensure that economic growth will positively impact the broadest possible range of communities and families. I believe that access to timely, affordable and high-quality healthcare is key, since economic growth is contingent on a healthy population.

Health is associated with increased well-being and productivity, as well as with lower healthcare costs. But for healthcare to be sustainable, it needs to shift from treatment and care delivered by a financially overstretched system to a holistic approach based on policies, products and services aimed at disease prevention and well-being.

There are a number of challenges. The Philippines, for example, has only 0.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people, where the WHO recommends two. Some 30,000 Filipino medical professionals work abroad, where they can get better pay. And health facilities tend to be concentrated in urban areas, while rural areas suffer from higher levels of poverty and mother and child mortality.

The region’s governments are aware of these issues and are seeking changes in various ways. More money is being diverted to health infrastructure, and health policies are being modernized, for example with the introduction of universal health coverage. Unfortunately, decision-making can be slow, implementation more complicated than expected, and enforcement of policies less ardent than needed.

An overhaul of the region’s health systems is an immense task that requires cooperation between governments and the private sector. Sound policies are needed, but innovations on the ground are a much-needed source of medically effective and economically viable solutions. Boston Consulting Group works with the World Economic Forum to study the potential of leapfrogging health systems in emerging economies and concluded that the opportunity is unprecedented: an estimated one third of all global health expenditure will occur in emerging economies by 2022. Whether this increased investment will lead to a true transformation of health systems depends on decisions being made today. An overhaul of the region’s health systems is an immense task that requires co-operation between governments and the private sector. Sound policies are needed, but innovations on the ground are a much-needed source of medically effective and economically viable solutions.

Philips, for example, recently partnered with the Indonesian Reproductive Science Institute to tackle the country’s infant mortality rate, which had risen sharply from 227 per 100,000 births in 2007 to 359 in 2012, making it one of the highest in the world. Now, as part of a one-year trial, midwives in the Medan area will visit pregnant women and collect their medical data with a mobile app so that obstetricians and gynaecologists elsewhere can monitor patients. The effort aims to increase pre-natal care, improve delivery and provide immediate care for high-risk patients.

Over time, these and other initiatives will transform ASEAN’s health systems and I wonder where we’ll be 20 years from now. My hope is that the majority of people will have access to basic health services in important areas like family planning, infectious diseases and a healthy diet. I also hope comprehensive programmes will be in place for preventing and treating diseases like diabetes and obesity. And I would like to see universal coverage fully implemented, giving millions of people a stable foundation for a healthier and more productive life.

Technology will play a crucial role in this. Two decades from now, perhaps families in even the remotest of places will be able to access a live physician and their medical files through a mobile device. Or medical devices will have become so much smarter, cheaper and easier to use, that communities can easily invest in them and take control of their own health and well-being. And perhaps ASEAN will have set up a system for sharing and copying best practices in health systems, allowing successful innovations to be quickly disseminated through the region.

Equitable progress has never been more relevant. ASEAN has a bright future ahead of it, but perhaps the true measure of its success will be the extent to which economic growth will increase the quality of all people’s lives. If public and private sector leaders support this vision, ASEAN can transform the lives of millions and become a model for the rest of the world.

Author: Harjit Gill, Chief Executive Officer, ASEAN and Pacific, Royal Philips

Image: A doctor examines a Buddhist novice nun in a outside Yangon, Myanmar.