Singapore’s healthcare system is faced with multiple challenges: a growing prevalence of chronic diseases, which will only be spurred by its rapidly ageing population and a shortage of manpower in the healthcare sector.
Comprehensive yet affordable medical treatment is paramount in a city-state whose most valuable asset is its human capital. Under the weight of these pressures, the Smart Health-Assist (SHA) programme was conceived in 2015 as part of the Government’s broader Infocomm Media 2025 Masterplan.
Increased efficiency and enhanced healthcare
The SHA programme explores the use of technology to support new models of care, in both home as well as community settings. Telehealth -- the long-distance delivery of clinical care through the means of electronic communications -- is one such key area of focus.
One such telehealth project, which was piloted with the National University Hospital (NUH), allows patients to manage their medical conditions from the comfort of home while remaining independent. Given the rapidly ageing society in Singapore, these technological aids will be particularly helpful, especially for aged patients who are wheelchair bound or even immobile.
The NUH project focused on collecting and analysing patient data through sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure. Instead of observing patients in a hospital environment, which takes up considerable manpower and resources, the aim was to allow healthcare professionals to monitor the health statuses of participants from a remote location.
At the same time, it allows healthcare providers to enhance the efficiency of their services. Being able to access patient data in real time will improve the accuracy of care given to patients, as well as the consistency of key clinical and service outcomes. Regular feedback from telehealth devices also allows healthcare professionals to intervene and prevent emergencies from happening, instead of responding when it is already too late.
Moreover, the reduced number of patient visits to hospitals for routine checks will free up healthcare resources, enabling healthcare staff to better manage their time and focus on priorities.
Telehealth projects to improve delivery of care outside the hospital
The SHA programme is also piloting a number of tools and systems that enable community health providers to play a more significant role in taking care of the general well-being of residents, as well as patients with chronic diseases, outside of a hospital setting.
Diabetes, for instance, is one area that will particularly benefit from the SHA. In April this year, the Ministry of Health declared war on diabetes. Affecting more than 400,000 people in Singapore today, the disease was described as one of the biggest drains on the healthcare system, costing more than S$1 billion a year.
Already, telehealth technology has provided quick and sound solutions to the crisis. Under a new initiative recently announced by the IMDA, a partnership with non-profit organisations, SATA Commhealth (SATA) will leverage on Internet-of-Things (IoT) technology to enable patients at home to monitor their vital signs, such as their blood pressure, pulse rate, and blood glucose level. The project will begin with issuing IoT devices to 60 patients in the Chai Chee area, and will not only enable healthcare providers to continue delivering care to diabetic patients outside a hospital setting, but also allow for early intervention.
Leveraging cutting-edge technologies to improve healthcare
The SHA initiative signals that data analytics and IoT technologies will play a permanent role in Singapore’s healthcare landscape. It is an important step towards enabling Singapore to lead the region in healthcare delivery.
The analysis of large data sets, accumulated from IoT technology in wearable medical devices, allows the discovery of patterns that can reveal critical, life-saving information. The ability to gather new insights into diseases can make an impact at a national level. Not only can healthcare researchers determine how to reduce chronic illnesses that affect a large proportion of society, such data can also contribute to genomics research, drug development and the success of clinical trials.
Julien de Salaberry, co-founder of Asia’s healthtech connector Galen Growth Asia (GGA), opines that IoT will play a key role in reforming healthcare delivery in Singapore. “The key challenge, however, will be encouraging adoption and ‘stickiness’ in terms of patient usage. Once these problems are solved, the data set will become highly valuable for planning and prediction, which will be the next phase of Smart Health.”
The Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) is constantly on the lookout for technologies to contribute to the smart healthcare landscape in Singapore.
SHA will leverage platforms and technologies to drive deeper and more meaningful insights for patients, providers and other stakeholders of the healthcare ecosystem.
Opportunities for infocomm and media businesses
For businesses in the information, communication and media (ICM) sector, the development of smart health infrastructure in Singapore presents tremendous opportunities for growth.
Though still in its infancy, SHA is already demonstrating to multinationals how they can pilot new business models, establish synergistic relationships with other market players and develop unique solutions in healthtech.
“SHA is creating multiple opportunities for investment and innovative business models – involving tech players as well as traditional healthcare providers and medical device makers,” says de Salaberry.
He also emphasises the potential that telehealth technologies presents for non-ICM industries.
“There will be business opportunities for multiple types of players, many of whom are non-traditional healthcare players, such as telcos, social media companies and consumer products companies. They will need to collaborate with healthcare providers, medical device manufacturers and pharma companies to deliver these solutions,” he says.
IMDA has identified some areas where they believe that the IT industry, including multinationals, can play a significant role in creating and enabling the smart ecosystem where the development and execution of telehealth projects can thrive.
Development of next-generation sensors
Activity trackers in the form of wristbands are already becoming immensely popular as people rely on them to meet their health goals. Users are able to continuously track their heart rate, calories burned, quality of sleep, stationary time and even use the data to help inform their decisions.
Patient monitoring health sensors will need to be a step ahead of commercially available healthcare-related sensors. The continuous monitoring of patients requires sensors that can be seamlessly integrated into an average person’s lifestyle, while being cost-effective, intuitive to use, functional and reliable.
This presents huge opportunities for companies to harness IoT technology to help patients capture an accurate picture of their health by designing convenient, wearable and even fashionable sensors.
Creating an IoT infrastructure
A crucial element to the success of smart healthcare is the ability for healthcare providers to have instant, wireless access to patient data without interrupting the patient’s daily life. In order to do so, it is necessary to create an IoT infrastructure that allows all devices and sensors to network seamlessly from anywhere in the city.
Companies that can step in to help implement and maintain this infrastructure on a nationwide scale have the opportunity not just to revolutionise the healthcare industry in Singapore; once set up, the ecosystem also presents significant possibilities to develop the smart home industry as well.
Revolutionising healthcare space through innovation
Large amounts of data generated from the sensors, as well as from the decision support systems, can help provide new insights into healthcare research for all disciplines. More importantly, it can also make a crucial difference in preventative treatment, as the data can be cross-checked against national health databases to flag patients with high risk profiles.
To cope with such massive data inputs, the Singapore healthcare ecosystem will need a significant boost in its data analytics talent and technology. Needless to say, as Singapore transits into a Smart Nation, this expertise is also easily lent to virtually every other industry besides healthcare, presenting unlimited opportunities for companies in this space.
Given that the government is actively embracing data analytics and IoT technologies, the healthcare landscape in Singapore is set to undergo a seismic shift. As the Smart Health-Assist initiative begins to contribute in shaping the infrastructure of the future, businesses in the ICM and healthcare space will feel the ripples of innovation – the focus now is really on who will seize the opportunities that follow.