App fighters: Public-private partnerships focusing on tech to fight Malaysia's obesity epidemic

By Cheryl Tay contact

- Last updated on GMT

The Ministry of Health is cooperating with the private sector to develop apps that seek to point their users in the right direction when it comes to their dietary and exercise choices. ©Getty Images
The Ministry of Health is cooperating with the private sector to develop apps that seek to point their users in the right direction when it comes to their dietary and exercise choices. ©Getty Images

Related tags: Obesity, Malaysia, mobile apps

Malaysian authorities are turning to technology and industry in their latest attempt to counter the country's alarming obesity rates.

Over 50% of Malaysians are either overweight or obese and suffering from high cholesterol, more than 33% are afflicted by high blood pressure, and are 17% diabetic.

Even more worrying, healthcare professionals have said, is the number of people who are undiagnosed for the aforementioned conditions.

Deputy Director of Non-Communicable Diseases at the Ministry of Health's Disease Control Division, Dr Feisul Mustapha, said this was particularly concerning when it came to hypertension, as there were three undiagnosed cases for every two diagnosed cases.

At the recent Innovation Labs World summit in Singapore, he stated that a lack of screening was mainly to blame for this problem, and offered recommendations on how to bring about the necessary behavioural changes to solve it.

Malady of the mindset

One of the major factors in the high rates of obesity and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Malaysia is that people treat it health as a low priority. Despite the government giving free health screening vouchers to contributors to the Employee Provident Fund, only a fifth of them have been used.

Mustapha said, "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."

At the same time, health literacy among Malaysian adults is a mere 6.6%, according to the latest National Health and Morbidity Survey. Mustapha explained that apart from awareness and knowledge, health literacy also entailed how healthcare was understood and applied.

Time for a digital catalyst?

He added that even with the proper policies and campaigns in place, Malaysians required a supportive living environment to effectively change their dietary habits and lifestyle patterns — in other words, healthier choices should be readily and widely available.

This is where digital health solutions can serve an important purpose, especially with the help of public-private partnerships.

At present, the Ministry of Health is cooperating with the private sector to develop apps that seek to point their users in the right direction when it comes to making better dietary and exercise choices.

One such app is is BookDoc Activ, which offers monthly tier-based rewards to users based on their average daily step count.

The Ministry of Health is working with the developers of the app to include functions that go beyond step count, and provide more helpful interactions between the user and the app.

Another such app is Naluri, an AI-powered app designed to be a digital motivational coach of sorts. Using big data to familiarise itself with the user's culture, first language, and lifestyle challenges, the app then provides access to qualified professionals in the local health sector, such as nutritionists, dietitians and personal trainers.

Mustapha concluded his address at the summit by saying: "I'm biased towards prevention, and to empower individuals in communities.

"We need new partners to find new solutions (and) it will certainly take a team effort from across (the) government, private sector, and the wider community for Malaysia to push for healthier lifestyles."

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