Getting serious about protecting healthcare innovation ― Azrul Mohd Khalib

APRIL 13 ― Innovation has been a buzzword in Malaysia ever since we committed ourselves to transitioning from an industrial economy, to one that is service driven, and now currently in a knowledge-based economy.

Today there is breathless talk about and mention of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in almost every single presentation, public talk and discussion these days with government, non-government and private sector stakeholders. You can barely get through a strategy meeting without these three words being uttered.

Described as an emerging industrial revolution triggered by a fusion and convergence of technologies that is blurring the lines between physical, digital and biological systems, it has the potential to reshape the landscape of politics, economics and societies. Healthcare has been identified as one of the sectors best placed to benefit.

Innovation is a fundamental ingredient of this convergence. Growing and cultivating a culture of and appreciation for innovation are key towards ensuring that Malaysia is not only part of the revolution, but has a chance to one of its leaders.

We often hear at seminars and conferences, the need to encourage and inspire the process of creating and innovating, but not enough is spoken about protecting the fruits of that hard work and labour.

Based on the many organisations, bodies and agencies tasked to different aspects of intellectual property, including industrial property rights and copyright, protecting the products of innovation is something that Malaysia is taking seriously. It is doing so not just for the benefit of foreign investors but also for its own bounty and interest.

Due to legal and regulatory reforms made over several years on copyright law, Malaysia has been previously recognised as having made serious efforts towards the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights.

In fact, the United States Trade Representative’s Special 301 report in 2012 took Malaysia off its watch list of countries seen to be weak and uncommitted towards enforcing IP in recognition of this fact.

It was a major achievement as Malaysia had been on that list since 1989. This perception of risk had previously cast a long shadow on those making investments in knowledge-based industries in this country, particularly in scientific and technological innovation.

Today, Malaysia stands out as one of the few countries in Asia which has a working regulatory and enforcement framework in place to protect these investment and the products of research and development. For the past two years, it has been internationally commended as a best practice for having an inter-agency enforcement taskforce on intellectual property rights.

Recent developments in improving access to affordable treatment of disease have unfortunately resulted in Malaysia’s commitment to protecting innovation, particularly in the area of life sciences, to be challenged and questioned.

We need to take this seriously.

Whether deliberately or by circumstance, the twin objectives of increasing treatment access and coverage, and of supporting healthcare innovation, often appear to be pitted against each other. It wrongly implies that you can never have or achieve one without compromising the other.

The challenge for policy makers is to find that balance. Though finding it has often created controversy and debate, it is not impossible to achieve.

Current research and advancements in medicine have made available a whole arsenal of life-saving treatments, medical technology and drugs which have changed how diseases are diagnosed, treated, managed and cured. But the reality is that many of these new therapies can be expensive and beyond the affordability of patients, especially those who are of lower income.

Making effective and quality treatment of diseases and medical conditions to be accessible and affordable to those who need it must be the priority for any government. It is certainly the case for Malaysia.

As an upper-middle income country, which the International Monetary Fund recently recognised as having a high performing, resilient and strong economy, Malaysia can and should be able to pull its own weight. It has resources and economic leverage which can be utilised to its advantage.

There are many things we can do today.

We need to relook at the way we are spending healthcare funds to ensure that we can afford what we need. We cannot insist or depend on exceptions or carve-outs which are usually temporary and limited. 

We can and should be able to negotiate for better and more affordable access to the latest drugs and treatment in healthcare. We should push back against unreasonable and exorbitant charges. Not everyone can wait or stay alive for 12 years before a more affordable option becomes available.

Supporting healthcare innovation helps ensure that there is motivation and incentive into the treatment of less common ailments such as rare diseases. People with these diseases should not be left behind.

We need to think long-term and come-up with sustainable solutions, particularly to address the increasing burden of posed by non-communicable diseases. 

Demonstrating our resolve to protect innovation, not only our own but those of others, will earn us the trust and gratitude of not only those who work and invest in those fields, but also the people whose lives will be affected.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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