As the demand for health services multiplied during the pandemic, Singapore General Hospital turned to tech to help make better decisions. It built a virtual dashboard that extracted and analysed data from different systems, so staff could have greater visibility of the hospital’s operations.

This dashboard pulled together all sorts of healthcare data, including Covid-19 test results, bed occupancy, admissions and discharges. Staff could then reallocate manpower and logistics to high-demand areas, says Chief Medical Informatics Officer Dr Gan Wee Hoe.

Data was key in helping SGH cope with the increased volume of patients during the pandemic. As the island state’s oldest and largest hospital, it is on the verge of reinventing itself for a new age of healthcare. Dr Gan shares how it used tech to tackle Covid, and its digital health plans for the future.

Fighting Covid-19

SGH used the virtual dashboard to create heat maps of staff who were coming down with acute respiratory infections, shares Dr Gan, who is also Head and Senior Consultant at the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. This alerted the hospital to potential clusters early, so they could step in with precautionary measures to keep patients and workers safe.

To meet urgent demands, SGH had to rethink the way it implemented tech. The hospital co-developed a portable chamber that could convert rooms in hospital wards, intensive care units and operating theatres into isolation facilities within an hour.

Staff from different departments worked collaboratively to improve the tool, instead of following the usual linear path to adopt tech. This shortened the process from years to a “record few months”, Dr Gan says.

Empower staff

Healthcare is already ‘ripe for the picking’ in terms of adopting tech, notes Dr Gan. What can hospitals do to support tech use?

People are a crucial factor, SGH believes. The hospital wants to make sure “every clinician with a good idea” is supported to realise their ideas, Dr Gan says. After all, “the clinicians who are managing patients and their health needs day-to-day are best placed to identify areas of care that will benefit from digital health transformation.”

SGH intentionally exposes staff to digital health to help them become comfortable. “Until recently, medical and nursing schools [did] not teach this as part of their curricula,” he notes.

The hospital runs “living labs” to pilot new digital initiatives. This allows clinicians to “see, up close and personal, the power and potential that digital health brings to patient care transformation”, Dr Gan shares.

For instance, SGH is trialing the MyCare app, which allows patients to access their diagnosis, medications and blood pressure on iPads next to their beds. Patients can message their care teams to ask questions about their care plan, request for beverages or housekeeping, and even read up on helpful tips for their medical condition.

The hospital is also testing contactless health monitoring. Patients wear biosensors that transmit their heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation level to the nurses’ dashboard in the ward. “These technologies are especially useful for patients with infectious diseases such as Covid-19, because they enable effective and continuous health monitoring of patients without unnecessary risk of exposure to healthcare workers,” he explains.

Integrate

Integration is another key part of SGH’s future health strategy. “Technology, data analytics and informatics have traditionally been largely vertically developed in separate tracks”, says Dr Gan. But the hospital wants to bring them together.

This has great potential for enhancing patient care. Imagine a software that could convert microscope slides into digital images. AI can then comb through these to sniff out the most subtle traces of cancer in tissue specimens, including those that might evade the human eye.

“You can immediately see the benefits of such an integrated system-of-systems,” he adds. In September this year, SGH partnered with Philips to establish the Digital and Computational Pathology Centre of Excellence to work towards this vision.

What could hospitals of the future look like?

The impending change that tech promises for healthcare is exciting, if what we’ve seen in other industries is anything to go by. “Proven technologies in the info-comm, defence, banking and other sectors are making their way and finding important use cases in healthcare” Dr Gan says.

For instance, blockchain is useful for combining data from multiple sources safely and securely. This can help unlock personalised medicine, preventive medicine for entire communities, and spur large scale clinical research, he explains.

The Internet of Medical Things is another promising field. “Defence has its networked sensors and shooters to win the battle decisively,” Dr Gan notes. Healthcare can use the same approach to merge and analyse data from medical devices, wearables and test results.

The pandemic has demonstrated the incredible benefits and boundless possibilities that tech offers. SGH is preparing its people and restructuring its teams to maximise the impact tech can have on enhancing patient care.