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Asia’s ageing population: challenges and opportunities in health care

The world is getting older. By 2050 the number of over-60s will have more than doubled to two billion, with Asia leading the way.

Asia’s ageing population: challenges and opportunities in health care

In 2013, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Japan to be the first ‘super-aged society’, defined as having more than 21% of its population aged over 65. By 2050, this figure will have risen to 40%, with the average Japanese pensioner celebrating their 91st birthday. South Korea is in hot pursuit, and UN figures show that the trend is extending throughout the region.

The reasons behind these trends are numerous and vary from country to country. Economic growth and improved living standards are undoubtedly the overarching influencers. Diet too is a major factor. The Japanese top the world league of average life expectancy at 83.7 years and are renowned for their healthy dietary habits.

Impact of an ageing population on health care

With an elderly population comes a rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory illness, cancer and dementia. According to the WHO, these conditions are leading causes of death in Asia, claiming an estimated 8.5 million lives each year.

A drop in the birth rate and increased geographical mobility mean reduced family support for the elderly, adding further pressure to health and care services. This is especially an issue in the emerging economies such as Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, where health spending hasn’t kept pace with demand.

While many east Asian countries have introduced national universal health care coverage, fragmentation of services is still a significant problem. The need for better integration, with improved coordination between primary and hospital care and other services, becomes key for an ageing population with complex, long-term needs.

Health care for the elderly: opportunities and strategies

Whilst ageing populations are creating health care challenges in Asia, there are significant opportunities too. Healthcare infrastructure, for instance, will need to keep pace with demand, and Hong Kong currently has a US$25bn 10-year plan to upgrade its facilities and create more bed-space.

Simultaneously, hospital-to-home strategies are becoming more important as governments look to shorten the length of expensive hospital stays. Remote monitoring, ventilation innovations, self-medication and home adaptations are all part of this strategy. Increasing the numbers of community medical professionals will also help to ease the demand for hospital stays. As part of this thinking, the ministry of health in Singapore is aiming for a 40% increase in day and home care services.

Health care success stories: medical consultation and insurance services

With increasing care-in-the-home strategies and the challenge of attending face-to-face appointments for the elderly, it’s no wonder that a raft of technological solutions is emerging across Asia to help tackle this challenge.

Established in 2016, the Indonesian medical consultation app Halodoc already boasts two million users and 20,000 doctors. Not only are its consultation fees a fraction of the cost of an in-person consultation, but access can now happen via a smart device.

Insurers operating in the region are providing telemedicine apps as part of their offerings. Generali Global Health, for instance, offers its My Digital Doctor service providing members with the opportunity to discuss their primary care, review treatment plans and test results, get well-being guidance and other matters, and even receive prescriptions, all through a smart device.

Meanwhile, Jio Health, which launched in 2018 in Vietnam, offers a hybrid service with an online health care app and a physical centre in Saigon. Jio Health covers primary care, paediatrics and chronic disease management and is planning to expand.

In Japan, Dutch company Philips is helping to launch the country’s first telemedicine intensive care (eICU programme), allowing clinicians to deliver critical care to patients remotely with the help of algorithms and a live video link. The programme has increased access to critical care by 21%, reduced mortality by 20%, and generated care savings of nearly US$1,500 per patient across a 60-day period.

The power of AI: technology for health care innovation

Artificial intelligence is another technology that could transform senior health. Facilities across Japan are testing robots that deliver an assortment of social and physical health care, in a government-backed initiative that has been met with positive reviews by elderly residents.

While early detection can help avoid expensive treatment for advanced diseases, diagnostic equipment such as an MRI scanner is often prohibitively expensive in emerging economies. This leaves a gap in the market for medtech companies to produce simpler, more affordable ‘B-line’ versions of such products.

Ageing population and health care

The population across several key Asian economies is ageing, in a trend that’s delivering both challenges and opportunities for the healthcare industry. There’s no doubt that governments, the healthcare sector, insurers and other groups need to coordinate to ensure appropriate resources are in place in the coming years. Advancements in technology, help in the home strategies and medical device innovation all have a role to play, although initiatives that tackle root wellness and diet behaviour may well be the most important of all over the long-term.