PETALING JAYA, Aug 9 — Malaysia’s cost burden of just three non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is RM22.53 billion annually, with experts warning that the true cost might be even higher.

The figure was revealed in a new report released today by the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The report, titled “The direct healthcare cost of noncommunicable diseases in Malaysia”, looked into the direct health costs of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

Using data from 2017, the report estimates that RM9.65 billion was spent on the three diseases, comprising 16.8 per cent of total health expenditure in 2017.

These costs include those incurred by hospitalisation, primary care services, outpatient attendances, medication, as well as health promotion efforts.

Findings published in 2020 estimated that the three diseases cost Malaysia up to RM12.88 billion in productivity losses due to absenteeism, presenteeism and early retirement.

MoH’s deputy director for non-communicable diseases Dr Feisul Idzwan Mustapha told Malay Mail that while the pandemic may have further driven up these costs, other factors were also at play.

“Even without the Covid-19 pandemic, the costs would have gone up (due to the) increasing number of people living with the disease, as evidenced by our regular population-based surveys over the years,” he said.

He added that rising inflation within the healthcare sector was also a contributing factor.

In his opening remarks at the report’s launch, Dr Feisul pointed out the wider environmental factors that contributed to the rise of NCDs.

“People often forget that NCDs are not just about bad choices; our behaviour is very much influenced by our living environment and social conditions as well.

“Rapid and awkwardly planned urbanisation has its own set of negative impacts on (human) behaviour,” he said, adding that poverty also had a significant influence on health outcomes.

In his opening remarks, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said as Malaysia ages, more people will be living with NCDs in the long term.

“Malaysia is expected to be an aged nation by 2030, where people of the age of 65 comprise over 14 per cent of the population.

“This demographic change means that the health and economic burden of NCDs may increase,” he said.

A co-author of the report, Jaithri Ananthapavan, said that cost-of-illness studies are just one step in justifying the need for urgent action on NCDs.

“The limitation of these studies is that they just tell you the size of the problem,” said Jaithri, who is a senior research fellow with Deakin Health Economics, Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University, Australia.

She added that another challenge in estimating healthcare costs was a lack of sufficient and robust data, saying that the Malaysian experience was similar to that of other countries.

“What we need to acknowledge is although we know the costs of ‘big ticket’ items such as hospitalisation and primary care, it is difficult to estimate the magnitude of costs that were missing.

“The report does not include rehabilitation costs, nursing time costs, carer costs... these are all limitations that show the true cost may be greater,” she said.