The SARS Threat and the Need for Investing in Health Research

Article excerpt

Byline: Dr. Jaime Z. Galvez Tan

The high attention being generated by the emergence of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) has further exposed the inherent weaknesses of the Philippine Health System. While every Filipino has become more health conscious, the concurrent fear and panic from the possibility of contracting SARS stem from the knowledge and perception that our health infrastructure will not be able to cope with this impending pandemic.

One obvious reason for this is the lack of investments in health by the government. The proportion of the health to the national budget has been less than two percent for the last five years. And for the past 25 years, government expenditures on health have been on a growth plateau with a slightly higher than two per cent of the national budget. The good years for government investments in health were last seen in the 50?s and early 60?s.

Comparing ourselves with Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea, these countries have been investing five to eight percent of their national budget for health for the last 30 years. Their health infrastructure is therefore more accessible, has higher quality and truly responsive to the needs of their people.

It is not only the government who is neglectful of investing in health. The private business sector and the individual Filipino have also not been giving health a priority. Total annual health expenditures, both public and private, are only 3.4 percent of the Gross National Product. The World Health Organization recommends five percent or more of GNP should be devoted to health, particularly for a middle income country like the Philippines.

One indicator of the lack of investments in health by the private business sector is seen in the non-growth of the hospital industry. With the exception of the Asian Hospital and Medical Center, there has been no new large tertiary hospital built within the last 25 years. The total number of private hospitals and private hospital beds have, in fact, been decreasing due to the difficulty of sustaining operations, as a result of a stagnating economy.

The individual Filipino is also spending minutely for health. Results of the National Family Income and Expenditure Surveys, held every three years, have always shown that Filipino families invest only 1.3 to 1.6 percent of their income on health. Tobacco and alcohol expenditures combined are even higher (3.2 to 3.6 percent) than health expenditures.

If overall investments in health are lamentable, more objectionable is the very low investments in health research. Initial studies have shown that funding for health researches constitute less than 0.5 percent of total health expenditures.

The global health community has been encouraging the practice of evidence-based medicine, meaning medical practice based on solid evidence of effectiveness and efficiency of diagnosis and treatment from health researches. …