Using IT to help solve Singapore's biggest healthcare challenges

As Singapore progresses to become one of the fastest growing economies in the Asia Pacific region[1], there are concerns about how it will scale up its healthcare architecture to address the increasing number of urban challenges.

Despite the fact that government has nearly doubled its spending from $4 billion to over $7.5 billion in the last three years[2], Singapore’s healthcare system is still struggling to improve productivity and reduce operational costs.

One of the biggest challenges for Singapore, as it moves into the next decade, is to scale up its healthcare system to cater to the unprecedented increase in the number of elderly citizens. It is estimated that number of elderly citizens in Singapore could nearly triple by 2030, taking the count to 800,000[3].

A sharp increase in the sedentary lifestyle of the populace has also further threatened the overall integrity of the healthcare system in the long-run, putting them at a higher risk of chronic health disorders.

With a large chunk of population becoming increasingly prone to urban healthcare problems, there is a pressing need to establish a strategic model that emphasises on disease prevention and community care.

In a recent talk at Smart Nation Innovations Forum 2015, Steve Leonard, Executive Deputy Chairman of the InfoComm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA)[4], discussed how information technology would help solve some of the biggest healthcare challenges and how it would transform Singapore into world’s first smart nation.

Addressing the talk, Leonard said that the biggest challenge for Singapore’s healthcare system in the future would be to develop solutions that provide effective and personalised healthcare, while reducing operating costs and delivery times.

Leonard believes that there’s a strong need to envision a sustainable healthcare model that’s loosely coupled with technology, and allows healthcare providers to deliver scalable solutions that balance urgency, privacy, accuracy and regulatory policies.

He feels that technologies like telehealth monitoring that allow caregivers to remotely track patients in real-time, without invading their privacy, could be a huge leap, not only for patients, but also for healthcare providers, as it allows them to provide better, faster, and personalised diagnosis.

IDA estimates that adapting a model like telehealth monitoring could allow hospitals to reduce readmissions by as much as 67%, freeing over 3500 beds per year[4].

It would also improve the productivity of healthcare professionals, allowing them to treat more patients, without the need for active participation. Since the diagnosis is now backed by intelligent health tracking, it would also infuse more transparency into the healthcare system, with suggested treatment options now supported by empirical and historical data.

The data collected from these monitoring systems could then be fed to intelligent analytical systems to discern patterns and root-cause for diseases, and to come up with smarter and better preventive strategies.

Considering the fact that Singapore currently has over 8000 people per square km[5], having a data model that can help understand the healthcare issues of its population on a granular level could be groundbreaking.

Apart from understanding patient behaviour, there is also strong emphasis on reducing medical errors, which are often cited as one of the most common reasons for treatment failure. Technology can be used to reduce human error in diagnosis and provide automated healthcare solutions.

For example, automated specimen checking and patient verification systems can be developed to ensure that correct specimens are tagged to patients, every time.

However, developing a sophisticated and sustainable healthcare architecture using technological advancements is just one part of the equation. The other equally important aspect is to ensure that these services are accessible across all income groups.

Singapore’s healthcare system is often criticised as prerogative of the rich. Despite the 3M schemes (MediShield, Medisave, Medifund), most Singaporeans end up spending as much as 55% of the total healthcare expenses from their own pockets[6].

In fact, owing to its extremely high out-of-the-pocket expenditure, WHO has put Singapore on the list of nations with “catastrophic health expenditure”.

Such proliferating healthcare expenses not only mitigate the accessibility to healthcare services to low-income groups, but also defer early detection and treatment of chronic healthcare diseases, eventually rendering the whole healthcare system inequitable in the long run.

Therefore, as Singapore looks to improve the outlook of its healthcare system by leveraging the power of information technology, healthcare providers should ensure that the benefits of reduced operating margins due to technology are passed on to patients. Government should also look to increase its spend and implement appropriate financial reforms to make smarter healthcare services affordable and accessible to the masses.



Posted in Asia Pacific Health IT

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