Bridging the medical talent gap through innovation
Singapore’s Ministry of Health projects that the country will need 30,000 more healthcare professionals by 2020. With a fast growing ageing population driving this shortage, it is faced with the challenge of meeting the healthcare needs of some 610,000 Singaporeans who will be over 65 years old in 2020, up from 460,000 in 2015.
Singapore, which already boasts a healthcare system that is the envy of the world, shared the top spot of the healthiest place in the world to live in 2016 with Iceland and Sweden in a United Nations’ study. To continue providing world-class medical care in the future, the government, universities and businesses are looking to tap into medical technology to help close the talent gap.
Turning ideas into commercial products
UK product development firm Cambridge Consultants, which set up an office in Singapore four years ago, partnered Singapore-based incubation firm Clearbridge Accelerator to help overcome what Richard Hall, head of Global Medical Technology at Cambridge Consultants, called “the big gap between a jolly good idea that shows promise and a product”.
One of the outcomes of the partnership was the development of a new liquid biopsy system called ClearCell® FX1, which isolates circulating tumour cells from a blood sample – even at concentrations as low as one in a billion blood cells. This non-invasive liquid biopsy test enables medical practitioners to analyse the disease before, during, and after treatment, to help them make informed choices about treatment and eventailor cancer treatments in the new era of precision medicine.
Acknowledging that the city-state is well positioned to develop the med-tech products, Hall said: “Singapore is culturally diverse. There is strong support from the government and an outstanding education system. There is also a growing band of entrepreneurs and that's coupled with the presence of a large number of multinational companies.”
This unique combination of multinationals and entrepreneurs in Singapore means that business ideas are being developed by people with real-world product development experience, which could potentially drive the innovation required to solve the talent shortage.
The innovation process is aided by Clearbridge Accelerator which provides financial guidance, access to funding, advice on strategic, regulatory and operational issues and mentorship to entrepreneurs and start-ups.
Johnson Chen, managing partner at Clearbridge Accelerator, said that partnering with Cambridge Consultants helps speed up the commercialisation process and reduces time-to –market by tapping into 750 highly-experienced engineers and professionals with strong product development expertise.
Hall said that companies like Clearbridge play an important role in the ecosystem, nurturing start-ups – that develop products that will meet the needs of the future. But he is realistic about the near-term ability of technology to address the skills shortage.
“Can we solve that talent gap fast enough? We're trying our best, but I think it's something that is going to take a Herculean effort and a lot of investment to get that gap closed. And it's not going to happen overnight, unfortunately,” Hall said.
Singapore ripe as med-tech destination
Hall praised Singapore’s vibrant ecosystem for medical innovation and the strong relationship between the public and private sectors, making it a thriving Asian base for his company. He said that the government’s focus on the medical sector means more opportunities and investment in research and development (R&D).
“What is breeding is a large amount of investment in research and entrepreneurial ideas in the universities and government bodies that are attached to the universities and hospitals. This is providing a really good primordial soup of great ideas and people who want to exploit them,” he said.
The ideas coming from these relationships are being augmented by the Internet of Things. For example, improvements in data collection technologies, such as wearables that track physiological progress like heart rate, so the patient doesn’t have to go to a clinic for every healthcare need. This can potentially help ease the strain on the healthcare system.
In addition, the med-tech space is being supported by thriving R&D hubs in Singapore such as Biopolis and Med-Tech Park. These spaces focus on the convergence between technology and the biomedical sciences.
Biopolis is a dedicated medical R&D hub that was established over a decade ago. It hosts biomedical research and development centres and innovation campuses for international companies. For example, the Proctor and Gamble Innovation Center was opened at Biopolis on 28 March 2014. The Med-Tech Park is Singapore’s first hub dedicated to the medical technology industry. Within the park, the MedTech Hub was established as a collaboration space between researchers and equipment makers from within Singapore and across the world.
Singaporeans willing to embrace technology
The willingness of everyday Singaporeans to embrace med-tech is likely to result in a greater uptake of technology in the healthcare sector. A recent Accenture survey found that 80 percent of patients in Singapore would use a virtual assistant while 54 percent are comfortable with having technology replace traditional healthcare services.
In addition, through the use of the telehealth programme started by the National University Health System (NUHS), more than 1,300 patients with chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart conditions were monitored online in 2015.
Since then, the government has been encouraging innovation in the healthcare sector, with apps, wearables and an expanded digital database of patient information helping with monitoring, testing and diagnosis. Such patient-focused remote healthcare has reduced the need for patients to visit a doctor at the clinic for periodic check-ups, and eased the need for healthcare professionals. Having said that, the move also sees regulators grappling with implications such as maintaining the security of patient data.
The relationship between medical advances and technology is creating profound changes in the types of treatment and how they are delivered. But this is only possible in a rich med-tech ecosystem in which governments, researchers and enterprise together create a space for innovation.
Certainly, Singapore is leading the way in the region through its 2020 Healthcare Manpower Plan.
The plan leverages technology to deliver healthcare with fewer human resources. As part of a three-pronged strategy, it includes developing more technology-enabled wards, tele-rehabilitation, and big data-assisted pharmacy and apps such as Match-A-Nurse – all of which will be expected to ease the talent shortage in the near future.