A Perplexing Diagnosis for Healthcare in Asia

Hundreds of millions can now afford a better class of care; they just need leaders to deliver it.

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The vision was simple enough—great medical care with a great bedside manner to go with it. A hospital firm wanted to build dozens of facilities across Asia in easy-to-reach residential areas. The two-story hospitals would offer all the right services and technology. Most importantly, they’d provide a high level of customer service to stand out, with highly skilled doctors and caring nurses and support staff tending to every patient’s need.

The leader of all this would have a challenging but dream assignment. The only hitch: The hospital couldn’t find anyone who could do it.

When it’s talked about in the United States, healthcare “reform” revolves around how to give tens of millions of people access to medical help. It’s a different scale in Asia. Since China embarked on its reform efforts in 2009, the number of Chinese covered by insurance has grown by several hundred million. That’s just China, by the way. Indonesia has an ambitious project to establish mandatory insurance for everyone, making basic healthcare available to nearly all its 250 million citizens and residents by the end of the decade. Malaysia is also considering a universal insurance system, while Vietnam, India and other nations have boosted healthcare budgets significantly.


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Such efforts promise to bring a greatly improved standard of living to literally billions of people. Demand for healthcare is almost certainly going to rise across the continent, thanks to aging populations in China and a burgeoning middle class in Asia that has both the insurance and the wealth to afford treatments. This really is a great opportunity to be a leader, make money and have a huge positive impact on society.

But “leader” is the operative word here. It turns out, it requires a lot of long-term care to find the right executives who have both the key skills and the local knowledge to oversee all this.

Let’s go back to our ambitious hospital firm looking to build out its chain. Few medical professionals trained in Asia know how to deliver the high-quality customer care the firm wanted—it isn’t generally taught there. But if you were to cross oceans, you’d find Westerners are generally clueless about all the regulations that countries from India to Korea happen to have for delivering health care.

Indeed, a leader at an Indonesian hospital told us about his efforts to bring a new, minimally invasive surgery to his facility. But the only doctor at the hospital who could perform the surgery wasn’t Indonesian, and the country has extremely strict rules limiting who can perform procedures. It took his non-Indonesian doctor a year to get the right permit.

Then there are the unwritten rules new leaders to this era must contend with. In Chinese healthcare, many teams have loyalty to their bosses, not to their employers. So if the boss leaves, so does the entire team. “Staffs operate in the gray zone where nothing is black and white,” one Chinese healthcare executive told us. “An overly structured leader won’t work.”

So what’s the answer? For this industry, the first and most important step may be to realize that nothing is going to happen overnight. The sooner a more deliberative approach to training and preparing leaders for healthcare reform takes place, the better. Hospitals will need to develop a new eye to look for skill sets that may not have mattered as much before the reforms—skills like agility, relationship building and strategic vision.

In the end, our hospital chain that wanted it all actually found it—by splitting the job. It brought on a medical professional to handle improving the level of care who also knew the ins and outs of local regulations. Then, for the CEO job, it found an expert in delivering high-quality service—a hotel executive with years of Asia experience. Its patients were going to get great medical care with a smile. We call that a case cured.

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