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Opinion

Reimagining Asia's response to COVID-19

Purpose-driven leadership, digital transformation and collective effort are critical

| Singapore
A medical personnel uses a bag-mask valve at an isolation facility in Metro Manila on May 1: few problems are insurmountable when collaborative science rise to the occasion.   © Getty Images

Alexis Serlin is head of Asia Cluster at Novartis.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an extraordinary and unprecedented public health crisis that stretches the limits of already-strained health care systems globally.

It has also caused the largest global recession in recent history, with a significant proportion of the world under lockdown. Responding fast and effectively to the pandemic is critical, and must involve the synergy of three key elements -- purpose-driven leadership, digital transformation, and collective effort.

The global pharmaceutical industry has stepped up to tackle the pandemic head-on. Research-based pharmaceutical companies are collaborating in unprecedented ways to develop safe and effective medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics for COVID-19 as quickly as possible. The industry has quickly mobilized R&D capabilities, medicines, and clinical trial expertise.

That means data-driven scientific trials can help determine which vaccines and therapies work best at protecting and treating patients. If a safe and effective therapy for COVID-19 is developed, we must be prepared to share platform technologies and significantly increase production capacity to drive access.

There is no denying that COVID-19 has triggered unprecedented collaboration in the global pharmaceutical industry, spurring remarkable levels of alliances to support patient needs. We should sustain this through our collective innovation power and global footprint.

Supported by our COVID-19 Response Fund, Novartis has contributed $3.1 million to pandemic response initiatives in 11 Asian countries in collaboration with government agencies, nongovernment organizations and medical societies to help protect healthcare workers, improve testing and treatment capacity of healthcare systems, and training of healthcare professionals.

Community quarantine protocols and the fear of getting infected with the virus have severely restricted in-person medical consultations. A sharp reduction in patient visits to hospitals and clinics for disease areas unrelated to COVID-19 has already impacted the quality of patient care and treatment outcomes, and might continue to do so.

Digital innovation, with the right partnerships and adoption levels, can be a key driver of the recovery. One example is the collaboration with one Singapore-based digital therapeutics company to support healthcare professionals, or HCPs, in monitoring heart failure remotely through medical-grade wearables and artificial intelligence in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Collaborations such as this can strengthen the healthcare infrastructure and better prepare the healthcare system for future pandemics.

Digital engagements can also immensely improve patient consultations with doctors through online symptom self-assessment tools that connect patients to the right specialists and speed recovery.

A robot which provides face-to-face medical consultation is pictured at a community isolation facility in Singapore on April 24.   © Reuters

Furthermore, digital innovation can provide solutions to community quarantine protocols that have made it difficult for patients to buy medicines. To help patients meet their medication needs, partnerships with pharmacy service providers can facilitate the direct delivery of medicines to patients at no extra cost.

Digital tools and partnerships serve as key enablers in providing continuing medical education to improve patient outcomes. To this end, our collaboration with Southeast Asia's largest professional online network of doctors provides quality scientific and clinical information to help optimize patient care in Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

We can reimagine how we work by creating a future working model that optimizes both personal and business performance. The global pandemic has accelerated our organizational need to explore new remote working models and our associates have expressed a strong desire for more flexibility in how, where, and when they work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed the way we work. We need to respond to this challenge with compassion. During uncertain times, it is important for leaders to stand by their employees and provide support as they adapt to the new normal.

Reinventing leadership styles from a hierarchical, top-down-oriented environment to an empowered, supportive, and unbossed culture is key to helping employees stay happy and helps boosts productivity. Furthermore, care initiatives like employee assistance programs on mental and physical health, child care, and online learning will help teams work more effectively.

Overcoming the crisis and building resilience for the future will require a multiyear collaborative effort by governments, businesses, academia, and patient organizations. Healthcare companies can help populations be healthier and support new healthcare policy priorities to ensure countries are more resilient to pandemic shocks.

Another key learning from the pandemic is how the digital preparedness of healthcare systems has influenced their ability to respond. We can seize this opportunity to pinpoint where technology can help healthcare systems be better prepared to predict, prevent, respond, and recover for future pandemic crises.

We have reasons to be optimistic. COVID-19 has demonstrated that we live in an era of unparalleled scientific capabilities. Few problems are insurmountable when human resilience and open, collaborative science rise to the occasion. Imagine what is possible if we bring our collective power not only to protect against future pandemics but also to address climate change and other issues that have an impact on global health.

Building resilience will depend on our ability to think of public health as an investment for the future. Our challenge will be to sustain the unprecedented level of collaboration across government, business, and other sectors to ensure the focus on public health does not decrease.

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