Bracing Singapore’s healthcare for the silver tsunami

What is the secret to longevity? According to ‘Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones,’ a recent Netflix documentary about people living extraordinarily long and vibrant lives, it is a combination of diet and lifestyle. The documentary not only showcases elderly individuals who are living longer, but also healthier and happier lives.

While living to a hundred years and beyond is certainly aspirational, an ageing population presents a clear and pressing issue for countries around the world. In fact, according to a report by the Singapore government’s National Population and Talent Division, one in four citizens will be over the age of 65 by 2030.

So pressing is the issue that, during his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised the need to prepare for the incoming ‘silver tsunami’ by fortifying the capacity of Singapore’s healthcare system.

The recent introduction of Healthier SG is a step in the right direction. Healthier SG, a national initiative by the Ministry of Health, aims to help all Singaporeans take steps towards better health and quality of life. As part of the initiative, the government will be pushing for better digitalisation and data sharing across the entire healthcare system. These initiatives will greatly bolster the city-state’s ability to address ageing-related issues, which are becoming increasingly urgent by the minute.

The complexities of growing older

An ageing population creates a series of complex challenges for Singapore.

One of the most urgent issues is resource constraints. An ageing population will drive up the demand for more healthcare services, which in turn puts a huge amount of pressure not just on individuals but the healthcare system at large. More elderly people would also mean more long-term healthcare and assisted living facilities that cater to them. Beyond the cost of constructing these facilities, land-scarce Singapore also has the unique challenge of finding space to build them.

Specialised healthcare facilities must also be staffed by a relevant workforce with specialised skill sets and expertise, which Singapore is already in a severe shortage of. In fact, the city-state requires 24,000 more nurses and healthcare staff by 2030 due to its rapidly ageing population. These pressures come at a time when existing healthcare workers are said to be at their breaking point due to burnout.

A growing elderly population also increases healthcare costs as older patients tend to use healthcare services more frequently, including more doctor’s appointments, medical tests, and hospital admissions. Moreover, older patients often have longer-term complex care needs and chronic health conditions, which can put a strain on resources over time.

They also tend to receive treatments from multiple healthcare providers concurrently. The challenge comes when health records are stored across disparate systems, making it difficult for any healthcare provider to address complex health issues adequately.

Judging by the numbers, the ageing issue is only going to deepen. Before Singapore can embark on building more care facilities, managing healthcare costs, and creating a talent pipeline, there is a critical step that we first need to take — digitalisation.

Going digital 

The link between digitalisation and Singapore’s ageing challenge might seem tenuous at first. However, if done right, it is arguably the most critical step that our healthcare system must take.

Firstly, electronic health records and health information systems store patients’ medical histories, test results, diagnoses, and treatment plans electronically and in one location. For seniors with multiple healthcare providers, having all their medical information in one digital location ensures that their doctors have a comprehensive view of their health, improving care coordination and reducing the risk of medical errors.

Secondly, digital systems facilitate the secure sharing of patient data between different healthcare providers and facilities, ensuring that crucial medical information is available when and where it’s needed. This interoperability improves care continuity for not only elderly patients but all patients who require healthcare.

Thirdly, digital health information systems offer clinical support tools that assist healthcare providers in making evidence-based decisions. These tools can provide recommendations, guidelines, and alerts, thus helping to improve the quality of care.

On the productivity front, healthcare organisations can work with technology vendors to develop digital tools such as collaborative workspace platforms. Such platforms can help streamline communication, knowledge sharing, collaboration, and notifications for healthcare workers. This will help reduce their workload and allow them to deliver an improved quality of patient care while avoiding burnout. Other digital tools can also automate administrative tasks, such as appointment scheduling, billing, and insurance claims processing. This frees up staff to focus on patient care rather than paperwork.

Finally, as we have witnessed during the pandemic, digitalisation serves as the foundation of telemedicine, enabling older individuals to have virtual consultations with healthcare professionals using video calls, thus reducing the need for in-person visits. This is particularly beneficial for seniors with mobility issues.

Defining an effective digital healthcare infrastructure

Digitalisation is only just the beginning. For a digital healthcare infrastructure to be truly effective, it must embody several key characteristics.

Firstly, it must cater to varying levels of digital savviness among users. This means creating intuitive interfaces and applications that are easy to navigate, complete with larger fonts and clear icons. Accessibility features, such as voice command functions, text-to-speech options, and adjustable contrast, will also aid elderly users with different needs.

Secondly, it must be scalable and future-proof. Singapore’s growing elderly population will put exponential pressure on our healthcare infrastructure. Adopting cloud-based solutions allows for scalable and flexible computing and storage capacities to keep up with this increased demand, all in a cost-effective manner.

Thirdly, considering the highly sensitive patient data, compliance and privacy must be top priorities. Aside from implementing stringent security measures and complying with healthcare regulations, it is also about finding service providers with the right expertise and experience in complex regulatory environments.

Collaboration is key

Beyond diet and lifestyle, ‘Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones’ also highlights another secret to longevity — community. For elderly people, being part of a community provides a social support network, which is crucial for physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

The same can be said about Singapore’s journey to embrace digital healthcare. Instead of tackling digitalisation and the challenges posed by the ageing population in isolation, the city-state is actively fostering public-private partnerships. The goal here is to fast-track innovative solutions that will address the rapidly evolving healthcare challenges, including that of our ageing population.

Ultimately, by reinforcing and expanding our healthcare capacity through digitalisation, we are not just preparing for the ‘silver tsunami,’; we are ensuring that it ushers in an era of affordable, accessible, and excellent healthcare for all.