Covid-19 will be a “tremendous drama in the next few years”, said Singapore’s health minister Ong Ye Kung.  But it is Singapore’s ageing population that will be the focus of real change in healthcare over the next 10 years, he identified.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced many organisations to explore the capabilities that technology has to offer. Innovations in technology allowed for a faster pandemic response but also laid the groundwork for dealing with the next health crisis – the country’s ageing population.

Speaking at the recent 34th CIO Workshop, Ong shared how healthcare may prepare for the challenge, the importance of trust, and the hope that tech brings.

Managing the ageing population 

Singapore’s population is greying quickly. 14 per cent of its people are currently aged 65 and above. That number will rise to 25 per cent by the end of this decade, reported The Straits Times.

If population demographics stay at this rate, with the continued rate of chronic illness and demand for emergency health care, the system will “balloon, beyond sustainability”, Ong stated. To avoid this, “we have to change the way we deliver health care”, he said.

This change involves shifting away from emergency care in hospitals, and delivering more care at the community level. Complications caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have already led some hospitals to adopt telehealth practices.

For instance, Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Heart-Track app allows healthcare providers to monitor patients’ progress remotely while they exercise at home.

Healthcare providers will need to share information efficiently for primary care and home-monitoring to be effective. “The personal records of every patient must therefore flow from the hospital” to the community, in order for healthcare staff to understand the situation and intervene, Ong said.

Lessons from the pandemic 

Covid-19 is an opportunity to rethink how Singapore will implement more technology in the future. “We are not short of technical and digital solutions,” said Ong. The responsibility now lies on “human behaviour” to make these innovations effective, he explained.

The widespread use of TraceTogether demonstrated that if citizens don’t trust each other and don’t trust the government, then digital solutions won’t work, he said. In other countries, similar apps have launched, but faced low adoption rates, he said.

Citizens must “trust institutions” and these institutions must be “responsible and accountable and transparent”. Having this trust and working together helps to ensure that nation-wide digital initiatives as part of Singapore’s ‘Smart Nation’ plans will be successful, he said.

The pandemic has also been an opportunity to rethink how infrastructure could be better used. For instance, Ong questions why there is a congested rush to work in the morning. Transport infrastructure is too focused on catering to a 30 minute period in the morning, he said.

Greater flexibility regarding arrival and leaving hours for work would mean the use of transport is more evenly distributed throughout the day. This would be a better use of the country’s transport infrastructure, he suggested.

Healthcare’s use of digital tech 

Tech has been central to Singapore’s pandemic response over the past year. The Ministry of Health was “in the eye of the storm” during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Ong. But tech advancements allowed it to understand the virus much faster than in the SARS outbreak of 2003, he noted.

The virus’ genome was mapped just weeks after the first outbreak in Wuhan, Ong explained. This process was “an IT operation”, which eventually led to the development of PCR tests and the beginning of curbing Covid-19 transmission, he continued.

Technology also played a role in the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. Covid-19 is “just like a computer software virus”, said Ong. However, technology was able to develop the counter, a mRNA vaccine which can produce a code for your body to counter the virus, he explained.

In the past it would take more than a week to isolate someone with a contagious virus. With contact tracing apps like TraceTogether, that time has been cut down to two days, cutting down the possibilities for transmission greatly, he told the workshop.

Technology is playing a key role in how Singapore deals with the Covid-19 pandemic. But as new health challenges emerge, tech has the potential to do much more. It is up to governments and citizens to foster a trusting relationship to make these initiatives effective.

Lead image from Ong Ye Kung’s Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ongyekung/)