BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The Ministry of Health is drafting an action plan to address mental health issues in the community, which have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his budget readout at the Legislative Council, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said the Brunei’s Mental Health Action Plan 2021-2025 would place more emphasis on a “whole-of-nation approach” in tackling mental health issues.

The action plan includes leveraging and mobilising resources from the public and private sectors, as well as civil society.

“Statistics have shown that depression, anxiety, and stress are the common mental health illnesses among our population, which has exacerbated when we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last two years,” he said on Tuesday.

There are about 7,000 people, including children and adolescents, who are undergoing mental health treatment at the Department of Psychiatry and at the community level.

“This is a matter of concern when there are a number of people who are desperate enough to take their own life.

“In 2020 alone, 14 people died by suicide. Of this number, six were locals and permanent residents, and only three of the reported deaths sought psychiatric and psychological services,” he added.

Brunei still faces shortage of nurses

Speaking on efforts to increase the number of health professionals, he said Brunei has yet to reach the recommended nurse to population ratio.

The sultanate has a ratio of 71 nurses per 10,000 population, while the recommended ratio in the UN’s sustainable development goals is 83 nurses per 10,000 population.

This indicates a critical shortage that could have an impact on the quality of medical and health services in the country, he said.

Nurses at the Labi Health Centre speak to a patient. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

However, the number of doctors and nurses has increased over the past five years.

There were 772 doctors in the 2021/22 financial year compared to 630 in the 2017/2018 financial year. Some 51 percent of the doctors were locals.

“The increase in private doctors has also contributed to the rise in doctor-population ratio, which is  25 doctors per 10,000 people in 2021 compared to 19 doctors per 10,000 people in 2017,” he said.

The number of nurses also grew from 2,413 to 2,683 in the same period.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said there was a gap in producing the ideal number of health practitioners to meet the needs of an ageing population.

He added that the demographic trend raises concerns about the provision of adequate human resources at a stable turnover rate in the long run, as the country is expected to see the largest rise in number of seniors in Southeast Asia in 2050.

MoH aims to embrace technology in healthcare delivery

MoH is upgrading its health information technology systems and infrastructure, while working to develop the country’s health data ecosystem, the minister said.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said the upgrading of the BruHIMS patient management system is expected to be completed in 2024.

Efforts had been made in the lead-up to improving BruHIMS, including upgrading the network infrastructure at the MoH headquarters and the core infrastructure of the BruHIMS system at RIPAS Hospital. These upgrades are expected to be completed by the end of April.

The minister said prospects for technological development are very encouraging in Brunei.

In collaboration with BruHealth app developer EVYD Technology, the establishment of a “global data campus” in Brunei will maximize the use of latest technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence to drive sustainability in the healthcare system and promote digital healthcare transformation and research, he said.

“This phased achievement indicates positive progress since the introduction of BruHealth, which was initially used for the management of the COVID-19 outbreak,” he added.

The minister said the BruHealth app will include additional features such as health management and population health management in the near future.

The BruHealth app was introduced in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Faiq Airudin/The Scoop

MoH tables budget of $391.9 million

The health ministry tabled a $391.9 million budget for the 2022/23 fiscal year, a 1.2 percent increase from last year.

The bulk of the budget will be used to pay staff salaries (58.3 percent). The balance has been allocated for recurring expenditure (41.7 percent) and development projects (1.5 percent).

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said about 70 percent of initiatives under MoH’s Strategic Plan 2019-2023  have been implemented in as of December 2021.

However, he said that the level of healthy living among Bruneians was still “unsatisfactory”.

“Influencing the public’s attitudes towards personal healthcare is a big challenge for MoH … yet it is the most important factor to reduce the rate of non-communicable disease and premature deaths,” he said.

An action plan on non-communicable disease will be launched soon to prioritise the prevention, early detection and management of chronic disease.

MoH will also be conducting a pilot study on diabetes management through the BruHealth app later this year to study the effectiveness of lifestyle interventions.