Healthcare has seen remarkable progress in the last year. Hospitals used robots to patrol wards, patients consulted doctors over video conferencing, and clinics delivered medicine to doorsteps. What else can we expect in digital health, and how can we keep the momentum of this growth?

Experts from different corners of Singapore’s healthcare system came together in February 2021 to uncover the possibilities in the future of digital health. From tech companies and healthcare providers, to frontliners and innovators, they shared their visions for how tech could transform Singapore’s hospitals.

Here are five digital health trends we can expect in Singapore, discussed at the ‘What are the bright spots in 2021 Healthcare?’ webinar.

Improve reach of healthcare

Singapore’s ageing population means health services need to target chronic conditions, shared Angela Yeo, Assistant Director of the Future Primary Care programme at MOH Office for Healthcare Transformation (MOHT). “A lot of it actually relies on the patients themselves to change their lifestyle.”

Her team worked on a telehealth initiative to bring care closer to patients, so they could manage conditions on their own. “This is especially crucial in a Covid-19 situation, because we want to keep them out of the healthcare institutions, so that they can reduce the risk of infection.”

The Primary Tech Enhanced Care initiative allows hypertension patients to submit their blood pressure readings regularly through a Bluetooth machine. Healthcare providers can then analyse these readings and intervene when necessary.

This initiative was very popular among patients, Yeo noted. They would typically see their doctor once every three or six months, but nurses could now call them every time their readings were abnormally high. They also got tips and recommendations through SMS.

But how did the team help a largely tech-averse population get on board with digital health services? Keep it “simple”, she said.

Polyclinics provided a lot of support as well. A care coordinator would help patients download the app and pair the Bluetooth device at the polyclinic. If they faced issues at home, they could call an IT helpline.

Beyond managing chronic conditions, it’ll also be important to bring preventive health services closer to the community. Medical imaging firm LifeTrack Medical Systems is working to make diagnostic imaging services more accessible to “identify diseases earlier and lighten the clinical load on hospitals,” explained Scott Yeo, LifeTrack’s Vice President of Growth.

At home care

Healthcare organisations can take distributed services a step further, right into patients’ homes. A lot of outreach is needed to reach people where they are, so they will not be “in a hospital or any institution when they are not needed,” said Steve Lee, Deputy CEO of Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS).

Wearables have a huge potential in healthcare, believes Dr Noel Yeo, Chief Operating Officer at IHH Healthcare Singapore and Covid-19 frontliner. MOHT’s initiative for hypertension patients is a good example, but more can be done.

An app shared between patients and the clinicians would be helpful. Patients can schedule appointments, ask questions over teleconsultations and access their medical reports, he said.

“We can even have wellness-related digital solutions that are personalised” to engage patients throughout their care journey, Dr Yeo noted. Hospitals could partner with healthy restaurants to create loyalty programmes and nudge patients towards a healthier diet, he said.

Hospital trips made convenient

For those who need to make the trip to a hospital, tech can make it more convenient. “Imagine if a person comes in and just shows a QR code on their phone to check in. That’s it, there’s no need to go to those massive numbers of forms,” Dr Yeo said.

He pointed to a future in which patients had full control of their own healthcare information, and could visit different doctors freely. This is a “very patient-centric model”, where patients can move between providers without “fear that only this particular doctor knows what my care plan is”.

Payments could also become more seamless with e-payment tools and integrating with insurance providers, he noted.

Tech can help even after patients have left the hospital. For post-discharge calls, “maybe an AI can help do some of these basic communications with patients and caregivers,” Dr Yeo said.

Free up doctors’ time

When Covid-19 first hit Singapore, it was both a public health and administrative crisis. Hospitals used pen and paper to log health and travel declarations for contact tracing.

They then swapped to Excel spreadsheets, but it remained challenging until the SafeEntry and TraceTogether apps were developed. “We were then able to deploy people gainfully into areas where we needed them, which was to provide clinical care for our patients,” said Dr Yeo.

SingHealth, one of Singapore’s major health service providers, used robots to manage the manpower crunch in Covid-19 community care facilities. They conducted swab tests and teleconsultations to reduce staff exposure to Covid-positive patients. This also helped conserve PPE, shared Benedict Tan, Group Chief Digital Strategy Officer at SingHealth.

“Nothing replaces the touch of a hand.” Tech’s value in healthcare lies in freeing up the human being of “administrative tasks that take them away from the bedside time”, noted Dr Julian Sham, Head of Health Business, Asia Pacific & Japan at Amazon Web Services.

A unified national healthcare system

As nations emerge from the pandemic, Singapore’s healthcare systems will need to continue working closely, said IHiS’s Lee. After all, collaboration enabled a big part of the nation’s Covid response.

As the national healthtech agency, IHiS helped to set up quarantine facilities, build AI temperature scanning devices, and centralise Singapore’s swab test results. It also supported several national digital health initiatives, including MOHT’s telehealth initiative for hypertension patients.

The national immunisation record system also proved useful for healthcare providers. “We were able to have a standard way of identifying patients when they come to our vaccination center, so that we make sure we vaccinate the correct people,” pointed out Dr Yeo.

“I don’t feel that there should be a divide” between public and private healthcare providers, he added. “Because we have proven that it works during the pandemic. We should look towards our future model being one in which both the public sector and private sectors work closely together.”

The pandemic has given many important lessons: from how to implement home-based care effectively, to integrating various health systems for more holistic and coordinated care. As Singapore emerges from the wrath of the pandemic, tech holds the promise for a more inclusive and efficient healthcare system.

Watch the full replay of the webinar here.