Singapore has been aggressively building healthtech during Covid-19 – from an AI temperature screening tool to a model that predicts pneumonia severity.

It was as recently as 2008 that nurses were leading COWs through hospital wards – Computer on Wheels, that is. These were once considered innovative, but the nation has advanced to trial everything from robotics to drones and sensors.

How did this healthtech revolution start? Dr Chong Yoke Sin is the former CEO of Singapore’s healthtech agency, IHiS, and President of the Singapore Computer Society. She shares more.

What has been the biggest challenge of the past year? How did you tackle this?

The biggest challenge for the past year has been Covid-19, and its impact. Major events such as the IT leader’s awards, the signature SCS Gala dinner, as well as networking sessions for our members held physically were all cancelled. However, we could network effectively, and even more so through zoom, which has become a mainstay for meetings and networking. We held an unprecedented number of webinars on topics related to handling of the Covid-19 in the beginning to everything else now. In fact the interactions are more focused, and ironically we could get more participants for each event, compared with the physical ones in the past. We are fortunate that the pandemic happened at this time, when the world is better prepared digitally to handle this.

How did you introduce robotics, sensors and applications in healthcare at a time when such innovations weren’t common?

Some 12 years ago, when I first ran IHiS, public healthcare leaders and us had this vision to simplify the IT systems, have wider access to the array of clinical records across the various settings such as inpatient, outpatient and even home care records, in the palm of the hands of the doctors, nurses, allied health and admin.

That is, whoever you are, you should have access at a glance to all the working parameters you needed to do your work, in the healthcare setting. Before IHIS, multiple types of IT systems resulted from autonomous procurement of systems by departments which were independent of one another.

The first thing IHIS did was to group the IT people according to the functions of the healthcare system such as EMRs, Radiology, Labs, Billing and Financial systems, etc, rather than by institutions. These groups were complemented by the ‘vertical’ institution IT staff who understood their needs and ensure good adoption of the systems at the ground. This ensured a systems view and technology adoption across healthcare institutions.

We then interfaced the disparate systems, and then integrated them before unifying them. This allowed for a seamless and less disruptive approach to the streamlined ‘decision support’ capabilities at the point of care. We consolidated and streamlined the hardware, software, data centers and finally implemented the public healthcare’s own healthcloud. So it was an architected and systematic approach to systems unification.

How did you create a culture in IHiS that was comfortable with change and strives for innovation?

It was not me, but a very close collaboration between the healthcare institutions and IHIS that drove change. We very much enjoyed exploring the possibilities of how we could deploy exciting technologies like sensors, robotics, AI, analytics, new applications by being good at interfaces and prototyping skills. We in IHIS were driven by a genuine desire to help our healthcare colleagues achieve a level of healthcare that our own families would be proud of. That continues today.

What are some future trends in tech you’re excited about?

I am really glad that Covid has accelerated Telehealth. I foresee that telemedicine will become a pervasive. Remote diagnosis and teleconsultation will be common procedures before seeing the doctor in person. I see a shift of many GP processes to the home, and the specialists procedures shifting to the GPs. This is where sensors, tele-diagnosis and monitoring will be common. Precision medicine will become more pervasive, all made possible with superior AI and better appreciation of genomics. I think healthcare will be the biggest beneficiary of tech, and rightly so, for what is more important than life itself?

What advice would you give to women looking to start a career in tech?

To all girls and young women thinking of a tech career, know that tech is gender blind to start with. Girls and boys perform equally well in Maths and science in school. When they grow up, less girls take up the STEM subjects in the polytechnics and universities, probably because of a pre-conception.

But Tech is going to be THE tool for the way we live, work and play. There’s nothing stopping us from excelling in all the careers in tech. If there are enough numbers of women in the tech workforce, there will be invariably, more women leaders, and then the self perpetuating virtuous cycle will ensue.

We should see close to 50% of women in the tech workforce. Many jobs are going to require tech skills or at least digital skills, and hence I would urge everyone, both men and women to acquire tech skills for better employability. Even at home, so much tech is required for educating your kids, healthcare tracking, using the various gadgets, etc. So the tech quotient of the population has to go up to thrive in this digital era.

What are your priorities for the year ahead?

I had the fortune to be involved with the establishment of 2 major organisations of NCS and IHIS, and worked with many remarkable people, who gave of themselves for a greater cause. At SCS, there are so many useful programs that build skills through training and certification for IT professionals and affiliated professionals, networking to share tech experience, career counselling and recently the Singapore 100 Women in Tech List.

My priorities are to continue to help link people to jobs in my capacity at SCS, to be an advocate for digital inclusion and to nudge our aspiring young talents to believe in themselves and go for it!

In my job as a VC at iGlobe, I get to meet entrepreneurs as well, in biotech, fintech, healthcare, edutech, etc. These industries will have a profound change in the near future, and the goal would be to nurture the entrepreneurs, and to have a better appreciation of their business.

How do you think Covid-19 will influence the use of technology in healthcare?

Covid-19 has already accelerated the adoption of telehealth to a great extent from about 10% to 90%. Remote diagnosis, telemonitoring, and a greater awareness of health and wellness with the’ work from home’ regime has already begun. Almost every aspect of our lives has gone digital – education, healthcare, shopping, meetings, etc.

Health apps will become pervasive, combined with track and trace, wellness, nutrition and exercising. I think apps will get even more creative, as more activities become digital due to the need for social distancing and limited physical interactions.

With digitalisation also comes an increase in demand for ICT skills. How do you think Singaporeans, especially women, can be trained to meet this gap?

Online videos are a great way for training these days. Get trained on the essential social media and digital media skills, like building websites, e-commerce posting, etc. Follow these with basic coding skills, that can be taken online. Advance to data handling skills and analytics, followed by AI. With this foundation, you can then progress to more advanced skills. So acquiring tech skills will get easier as the technology advances, and more coding will become ‘black boxed’. So technology is not to be feared, only to be understood.