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Close to 50% of Cancer Patients in Malaysia Experience Financial Catastrophe

If there is one disease that many Malaysians fear, it is cancer. Their fears are not unfounded – in 2012, there were over 37,400 new cases of cancer and 21,700 cancer deaths in Malaysia , with one in four Malaysians expected to be diagnosed with cancer before age 75 . Many have witnessed family or friends battle the disease – some pull through, while others do not. In addition to the physical and emotional toll it takes on the family, there is also significant financial risks that come with battling the disease. The ASEAN Costs in Oncology (ACTION) study by the George Institute for Global Health underscores the financial impact of cancer, highlighting that 45% of cancer patients suffered from financial catastrophe one year after diagnosis, while 11% did not make it past the first year.

The ACTION study, which is the first research of this kind to be conducted in Southeast Asia, pinpoints the cause of the economic hardship  faced by cancer patients in Malaysia – out-of-pocket expenses. In fact, just one year following diagnosis and treatment:-

46 percent of cancer patients had used up their personal savings
39 percent could not pay for medication
35 percent could not pay for medical consultation fees or tests
22 percent could not pay for rent or mortgage
19 percent had to discontinue treatment

At a panel discussion held by AIA Bhd. called Cancer’s Hidden Price Tag: Financial Preparedness Equals Better Outcomes, Dr. Muhammad Azrif Ahmad Annuar, consultant oncologist at Prince Court Medical Centre, weighs in on these statistics, “Over the last 20 years, significant advances have been made in the treatment of both common and rare cancers, leading to longer patient survival and improved quality of life. This progress is reflected in every area of cancer care namely prevention, screening, chemotherapy, targeted therapies, surgery, radiation therapy, and supportive care for side effects. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, many patients tend to have their cancers detected late, making it difficult for them to obtain optimal treatment at the earliest opportunity. Cost is the other major factor that hinders effective treatment methods.”

The combination of late detection and treatment costs are, in fact, the biggest economic concerns among the lower-income segment and under-insured – the two groups that make up 66 percent of cancer patients in Malaysia suffering from financial catastrophe.

Dr. Myralini S. Thesan, Medical Advisor of AIA Health Services elaborates, “Cancer is the third leading cause of premature death in Malaysia . Many of those deaths would be avoidable if there were more efforts to step up early detection and increased awareness about strengthening financial protection. Currently, only 22 percent of Malaysians have medical insurance or critical illness insurance . This leaves a large segment of the population at risk of facing financial catastrophe if diagnosed with cancer.”

As it stands, 10.3 percent of Malaysians risk dying from cancer before age 75, and new incidences are being reported daily. In fact, the incidences of cancer is expected to rise to 56,932 new cases by 2025 if no action is taken .

Thomas Wong, Chief Marketing Office of AIA Bhd. said that the ACTION study was significant because it showed that a cancer diagnosis in Malaysia appeared to be associated with substantial financial loss and premature death. “The findings by George Institute point to the fact that health insurance is the most visible means of minimising the out-of-pocket costs of treatment, offsetting the risk of catastrophic expenditure owing to illness and encouraging patients to comply with ongoing treatment,” he explained.

Underscoring the role insurers play in making sure more Malaysians are financially prepared to confront this kind of risk, Wong said that cancer coverage has also evolved to be more targeted and needs-specific.

“It used to be that medical plans adopted a one-size-fits-all approach even though the incidences of certain diseases were much higher than others. The 36 critical illnesses plan is one such example. However, insurers are now seeing the need to design more focused products based on the concerns of people at their different life stages. This makes providing comprehensive protection against one particular disease such as cancer more relevant for the consumer,” he explains.

Targeted and need-specific products also means that more Malaysians will have access to medical protection plans. AIA’s latest A-Life Cancer360 plan, for example, uses cancer-based underwriting parameters that only takes into account a person’s risk relating to cancer rather than their entire medical history.

The panel discussion organised by AIA is timely as it coincides with breast cancer awareness month and leads up to testicular cancer awareness month in November. The company has also developed a campaign called Touching Him and Her, calling on Malaysians to perform self-examinations to detect early signs of those cancers. Malaysians can visit to learn how to perform self-checks for breast and testicular cancer.

“We want Malaysians to know that early detection saves lives,” says Wong. “The survival rate for breast and ovarian cancers can be as high as 90%, while the survival rate for early-stage lung cancer is 70%. Treatment costs for early detection is also considerably lower; when detected at a more advanced stage, a combination of treatments may be required thus further driving up the cost of treatment. As such, it is important that we all take charge of our health to enable us to detect diseases early in order to enjoy better medical outcomes.”