By Patricia B. Mirasol

SHARPENING the focus on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), senior citizens, persons with disabilities (PWDs), and blue-collar workers will improve population health outcomes, according to Hilton Y. Lam, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Health Policy and Development Studies (IHPDS).

“These populations are important to the public health ecosystem because of their de facto community leader status,” Mr. Lam said — referring particularly to OFWs and seniors — at a virtual event on the health of future Filipinos. As it stands, low infrastructure investments in these populations translate to low reciprocal public expectations. 

“Their low opinion of public health will have consequences on the perceptions of people who value their opinions,” he said, adding that health programs that rely on participation by these groups — such as vaccination, nutrition, and blood donation — are put at risk.

Public health in the Philippines also suffers from its reliance on technologies that are not patient-centered, said Mr. Lam, which, in turn, leads to a slow response to epidemiological changes.

“The current programs are myopic due to an over-reliance on biomedical science to the point of rejecting the fields of data science, artificial intelligence, pharmaceutical manufacturing science, engineering science, and others,” said Mr. Lam. “Thus, when the pandemic hit the country, we could not do anything but shut down and pray we get the vaccines soon.”

He cited Taiwan as a country whose surveillance systems, which incorporates data science and artificial intelligence, enabled it to shut its borders as soon as it picked up “pneumonia-like symptoms with an unknown etiology.”

The island nation has, to date, kept its total number of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases under 1,000 and is conducting Phase 2 clinical trials of its own COVID-19 vaccine. Taiwan was also one of the few economies to post positive GDP growth in 2020.

To improve the Philippine public health ecosystem, the IHPDS proposed a proof-of-concept program that develops a set of patient-centered quality assurance tools. The program will describe the baseline health-related quality-of-life of Filipinos; train provincial-level researchers on health technology assessment; and test telehealth innovations to increase the value proposition for OFWs, senior citizens, PWDs, and blue-collar workers.

“We need to do better,” Mr. Lam said. “We don’t know when the next pandemic will hit.”