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Tech can help healthcare have 
better reach, efficiency

Leveraging technology can bridge constraints amid an ageing population

Singapore's healthcare industry is facing the increasingly daunting challenge of the nation's ageing population.

In 2015, there were 460,000 people aged above 65. By 2020, the figure will be 610,000.

The Ministry of Health recently said it will need 30,000 health workers to handle the ageing population by 2020.

This ageing population problem is compounded by the declining number of births.

Singapore's old-age dependency ratio has steadily decreased over the past few decades, presenting a number of profound challenges.

The ageing population places heavier demands on healthcare and the provision of aged care, which will fall on the younger generation.

The demand also comes amid a tight labour market.

With fewer medical professionals in the industry, it becomes doubly challenging and expensive to care for the sick and the frail.

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

Recognising the looming problem, the Government has invested heavily in providing the necessary infrastructure.

By 2020, six new polyclinics, 2,100 public hospital beds and 9,100 beds in community hospitals and nursing homes will be available to the public.

Another 7,600 places will be available in day, home and palliative care.

Leveraging technology and bringing telehealth into the mainstream provide one of the best ways to bridge the constraints of resource, cost, time and distance for Singapore.

SkillsFuture initiatives and scholarships have been rolled out to attract Singaporeans into healthcare.

The Government is also committed to investing in new technologies to provide quality healthcare for Singaporeans.

One example of this lies in the recently launched Centre of Healthcare Innovation (CHI) Co-Learning Network.

Tasked with redesigning jobs and developing new training programmes to attract and nurture healthcare professionals, the CHI was set up with a view to developing a sustainable healthcare system for Singapore through job transformation and technology.

In 2015, the National University Hospital of Singapore became the first public hospital to offer telehealth as a standard clinical treatment.

Through this, some 1,300 patients with hypertension, diabetes and heart failure are monitored online; they do not need to make trips to the hospital.

Leveraging technology and bringing telehealth into the mainstream provide one of the best ways to bridge the constraints of resource, cost, time and distance for Singapore.

Video vastly increases the possibilities for when and where healthcare professional see patients.

It can streamline everything from wellness and prevention, clinician visits, care coordination and nursing follow-up visits in hospitals, polyclinics, homes and even senior centres.

However, to gain the full benefit from teleconferencing and other solutions, regulatory and policy guidelines need to incent healthcare professionals and align with these new delivery models of care.


TELEHEALTH

As government and private organisations move towards encouraging population-based healthcare models and away from fee-for-service-only models, we will see the adoption of telehealth and the financial and clinical benefits of being able to reach patients at home or other convenient locations.

Over the years, a fair amount of data has been collected to evaluate patient satisfaction and clinical efficacy.

The reality is, patients like telemedicine. Broadly speaking, most patient surveys show that they have a greater than 90 per cent satisfaction rate.

Secondly, the industry has collected data that shows that telemedicine and real-time in-person visits and diagnoses to be comparable.

Healthcare professionals are also exploring new delivery models that focus on keeping as many people as healthy as possible.

Part of the solution will be realised through adopting different delivery models and solutions.

Rather than just focusing on the sick in hospitals reactively, more countries are focusing on preventative care that will keep healthy people from getting sick in the first place.

And they are looking into new ways to ensure that the newly healed do not fall into the rut of needing re-hospitalisation due to a lack of post-treatment care.

Through technology, medical professionals can reach out proactively to patients, regardless of where they are.

By enabling citizens to interact with healthcare professionals for wellness programmes at home or at work, private practices and organisations can effect a change in behaviour and limit doctor visits to when an in-person clinical consultation is needed or appropriate.


LIMITLESS POTENTIAL

This shift in philosophy is a challenge, but it is already beginning to happen in specific practices, communities and forward thinking countries around the world.

And there is almost limitless potential with this shift as it pertains to broadening reach and efficiency.

Video collaboration and consultation as a key method of delivering healthcare services is already a way of life in developed northern European and other more remote locations.

Closer to home, Vietnam and Thailand have already implemented telemedicine to overcome the challenges in providing quality and accessible healthcare solutions.

For example, the Ministry of Public Health Thailand uses video-conferencing to provide collaboration, and the improved communication across its offices has reduced cost per treatment.

As a result, it has been able to do more coordinated and efficient emergency response and pandemic preparedness.

In Vietnam, the Quang Ninh Department of Health used video-conferencing technology to overcome its shortage of medical professionals.

Video collaboration was used to equip healthcare workers with medical knowledge, skills and experience without their having to leave their resident hospital.

The frequency of training could also be raised without affecting productivity.

Telemedicine is a powerful tool that we can utilise to achieve the same, if not better, outcomes of what healthcare providers traditionally do in person.

The possibilities are myriad and the productivity, patient experience and the cost savings are compelling.

In the age of such technological advancement, perhaps making the best of it might be the silver lining Singapore's healthcare needs.


The writer is director of Asia-Pacific industry marketing at Polycom. This article was published in The Business Times yesterday.

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