More than one in two Malaysians are either overweight or obese. More than a third of the population suffer from high blood pressure and more than half have high cholesterol. 17% of the population has diabetes.
And that’s just patients who are diagnosed.
“It’s even worse for hypertension. For every two diagnosed cases, there’s three undiagnosed,” explained Dr. Feisul Mustapha, Deputy Director of Non-Communicable Diseases at the Disease Control Division in Malaysia’s Ministry of Health.
A major reason for the sheer number of cases is a lack of screening among Malaysians. At the recent Innovation Labs World summit in Singapore, Mustapha explained why Malaysians don’t get screened, how to influence changes in behaviour, and possible solutions to the problems.
One major challenge is that health is a low priority for Malaysians, said Mustapha. Contributors to the Employee Provident Fund were given free health screening vouchers from the government – but only 20% of them were used. “This is weird. Malaysians love free stuff, if there’s free food Malaysians will go for it – but priority free screening? No one wants to use it,” he added.
Health literacy among adults is only at 6.6%. Health literacy isn’t only about awareness and knowledge, but also how it is understood and applied.
“You can be educated, you can have a good job, you can be successful in your career; but that doesn’t necessarily translate to high health literacy.”
Non-communicable diseases are also increasing in Malaysia. The fast-paced urbanisation leads to a generation of urban poor,who often don’t lead healthy lifestyles. This increases the risk of them getting non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart attack, and strokes.
A common misconception is that awareness and knowledge of health problems will lead to change, Mustapha said.
“If that’s the case, then no doctor will smoke, and all doctors will exercise 150 minutes per week, and eat five servings of vegetables.”
Even with the right policy tools and campaigns, a supportive living environment is imperative to fuel behavioural change. Mustapha pointed to the example of his children – as a parent, he attempts to regulate what his kids eat. However, he cannot regulate how their grandparents enforce the same rules. If people are to make healthier choices, they should be widely accessible.
Digital health solutions are starting to play a role in behavioural change.The health ministry has collaborated with the private sector to develop apps that encourage citizens to put their health first. Naluri, an AI-powered app which works as a motivational coach to encourage healthyhabits. The app depends on user data to determine language, culture, and lifestyle challenges, and provide access to professionally-qualified local health coaches.
BookDoc Activ is a similar app that provides tier-based rewards for having a specific average daily step count each month. The Ministry is working with the app developers to expand beyond its step count function, and create more holistic and dynamic interactions.
“I’m biased towards prevention, and to empower individuals in communities. And we need new partners to find new solutions,” Mustapha said.
“It will certainly take a team effort from across government, private sector, and the wider community for Malaysia to push for healthier lifestyles.”