The rise of specialty medical care in Asia

Mr Eng Aik Meng, Founder and CEO of TE Asia Healthcare, shares why he is optimistic about the growth potential of specialty care, although manpower challenges remain an issue

Mr Eng Aik Meng (Credits to TE Asia Healthcare Partners)

Mr Eng Aik Meng is the Founder and CEO of TE Asia Healthcare, which has invested in a portfolio of specialty hospitals and medical centres in the region. This include Cardiac Vascular Sentral (Kuala Lumpur), a specialit cardiac hospital in Malaysia, Heartology Cardiovascular Center in Indonesia and Hong Kong Integrated Oncology Centre, a multidisciplinary oncology facility. In this interview with Hospital Management Asia, Mr Eng shares his thoughts on the outlook for the private specialty care sector, as well as his views on the current status of Asia’s healthcare industry.

1. What are your thoughts on the future trajectory of the specialty care sector, say over the next 3 – 5 years? Has this been impacted by the pandemic?

Since our inception in 2014, we have been expanding in our three focused areas of cancer, cardiology and orthopaedics. We now own specialty hospitals and centres in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, employing over 1,500 doctors, nurses, and support staff.

We will continue to expand regionally in the next 18 months, particularly in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. We have no doubt that the future trajectory of specialty care in the region will be upwards. Factors driving this trend include an ageing and increasingly informed population, rising affluence, and medical insurance coverage that enable patients to secure the health services they need.

The pandemic and its associated needs have disrupted national healthcare systems and pressured government budgets. This could potentially reduce available capacity within the public sector, which creates opportunities for private healthcare. The near-term focus of a post-pandemic world would likely emphasise equipping public health systems to cope with future pandemics, which means a decreased focus on chronic diseases. This could be another potential gap for private operators to fill.

2.   You have partnered doctors in setting up specialty hospitals. Through these partnerships, what have you found to be the most ideal  partnership model or healthcare delivery pathway?

Doctors at Heartology Cardiovascular Center (Credits to Heartology Cardiovascular Center)

In all our operations, our doctors own equity stakes which give them not just financial ownership, but also the autonomy to influence and provide care the way they see fit, as well as an emotional commitment to the practice. We are confident that their interests are always aligned with that of the patients. The equity ownership ensures that our operations, systems and processes, are aligned to those of the doctors and patients. As such, our doctors are involved, together with the professional managers, in key decisions affecting clinical care and operation.

In our model – each party provides value to create an ecosystem that works for the benefit of the patient. We also emphasise that this must be based on collective success and teamwork, and all of us should work for the interest and well-being of the patient. Hence, the selection of partner doctors is important – they must believe that they are part of a broader group.

3.   Where do you think ASEAN/Asia’s healthcare currently stands compared to other countries? What sort of role would private healthcare help to play in further raising the standards?

The standards of healthcare in ASEAN/Asia varies according to the level of economic development. At the extremes, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea have world-class healthcare systems comparable to those in Western Europe and the US, while the developing countries in the region struggle with resource constraints which include funding and medical talent, coupled with aging or insufficient infrastructure and services. As the World Health Organisation has observed: “Health is a striking example where least progress has been made in Asia, despite the high economic growth and great success in poverty reduction.”

The disparity in the quality of healthcare in the region has led to the phenomenon of medical tourism, where the well-heeled in countries such as Indonesia have travelled to neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia for treatments.

We believe that the pandemic and its demands on national healthcare systems will worsen an already fiscally constrained situation, but at the same time, create opportunities for the private sector. The closing of borders to curb the spread of COVID-19 has also reversed the outflows of patients and drove demand to private healthcare providers domestically. As such, it behoves these providers to raise their standards and show that they can fill the gaps adequately.

4.   Have you witnessed challenges in further growth of private / specialty healthcare, or just healthcare in general, in the region? Could you list some key ones? How should hospitals or healthcare leaders work to resolve them?

The main challenge we face in the countries we operate in is the scarcity of medical personnel. It takes at least five years to train a doctor and up to a decade or longer if they are in specialty healthcare. For our strategy, we are further constrained by the need to find doctors who buy in to the concept of a group practice in the private sector. Beyond doctors, key allied medical talent such as  nurses, medical physicists, radiographers and many more are also hard to find. Again, the major challenge is in trying to create an ecosystem or platform that can provide quality care to patients.

Investment in technology is an important step towards resolving some of the challenges, although it must be noted that they could be expensive and may not always show immediate benefits.

Governments and healthcare leaders should also ensure that healthcare spending is prioritised, and put in place sensitive policies that provide access to quality and integrated healthcare, and focus on preventive healthcare and wellness and not simply treating illnesses. In addition, strategies to grow and develop medical talent will be critical in securing the long term future of a credible health system.

5.   Lastly, what’s ahead for TE Asia in the future? Any new projects or plans we could look out for?

We are focused on expanding in our three core specialties and in expanding geographically, particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. We recently announced two new breast centres in Singapore, and the launch of Heartology, comprising a Cardiovascular Centre operating within the Brawijaya Hospital Saharjo in Jakarta, and an upcoming cardiac hospital in South Jakarta. The latter is expected to be operational by late 2022. We are also excited that our specialty orthopaedics hospital in Kuala Lumpur will be set to open towards the end of the year.


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