Public trust is key to Singapore’s healthcare reforms

With Singapore facing significant long-term pressures on its healthcare system driven by an increasingly ageing population, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung recently unveiled an ambitious vision for long-term healthcare reform in parliament earlier this year, led by the Healthier SG initiative launched earlier this year.

The proposed reform is rooted in preventative and proactive care, with Healthier SG poised to reduce the burden on traditional health institutions. For instance, hospitals embrace a more holistic and data-led approach to healthcare that suggests relevant screenings for all citizens, personalised health plans, and seamless cooperation across various healthcare institutions.

Data sharing at the heart of a sustainable healthcare ecosystem

The success of this reform depends primarily on one crucial component: data sharing-powered digital care, which enables more collaborative, effective, and efficient healthcare provision. By enabling seamless data sharing between health providers, they are able to identify at-risk individuals, provide community partners with critical insights to offer meaningful support, and allow authorities to assess the impact of their initiatives.

Incorporating digital care provides a more holistic view of patient health, which can help prevent or more effectively manage chronic conditions. For example, data sharing between general practitioners and obstetricians will allow women with pre-diabetes — potentially at greater risk of developing gestational diabetes — to be identified easily, breaking silos associated with existing healthcare infrastructure.

However, while this data-led approach has immense potential, the trust and buy-in of the general public determine its success. Public trust is not a given, as memories of the 2018 SingHealth cyberattack, which compromised the personal data of 1.5 million patients, including the Prime Minister, remain fresh in the minds of Singaporeans.

Without public buy-in, the government’s vision of a proactive, data-driven healthcare system will fail to reach its true potential. Thus, building a robust data ecosystem that earns and maintains public trust is crucial. Three steps are key to achieving this:

  1. Strict adherence to prevailing privacy and policies
    At a foundational level, healthcare organisations must have processes that adhere to prevailing privacy and security laws. The key legislation to consider is the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), which sets out obligations for organisations such as regarding the collection, access, and protection of personal data, as well as notification of data breaches​. In addition to the PDPA, the Computer Misuse Act 1993 and the Cybersecurity Act 2018 are other general legislations to be mindful of as these cover offences involving unauthorised access or modification of computer material, and unauthorised use or interception of computer services.

    While regulations provide a strong foundation to build public trust in a data-reliant initiative like Healthier SG, the real challenge lies in fostering an environment where consumers feel secure and motivated to voluntarily contribute more of their personal data, in exchange for insights.
  2. Encouraging citizens to willingly volunteer their personal data through education
    Education and transparency are crucial components of  building this environment. To encourage consumers to share valuable information with healthcare systems, organisations should always communicate transparently how an individual’s data will be used. For instance, a fitness application could share how tracking sleep data can inform better lifestyle choices. A well-informed consumer is more likely to trust a company with their data, and transparency in how data is collected, used, and protected can significantly enhance this trust.

    In fact, a recent study by customer engagement platform Twilio found that in Asia-Pacific consumers who fully understand how their data is being used are more than twice as likely to feel comfortable sharing all their personal data with a business, compared to consumers who do not. The same study revealed that consumers are 64% more willing to share personal data following a data breach if the company is transparent about the breach and takes necessary steps to address the situation, further emphasising the value of transparency..

    Collecting a wealth of consumer data, however, is only half the battle won. Organisations need to be open to sharing this data with other players within the economy to reap the full potential of a digital-first healthcare ecosystem.
  1. Embracing an openness towards data sharing across the industry
    This entails fostering a culture of data sharing that encompasses not just traditional health institutions, but also everyday healthcare providers like pharmacies and fitness centres.

    By sharing health data across this broad array of providers, we can achieve a holistic view of a patient’s health, paving the way for more accurate diagnoses, personalised treatments, and ultimately, improved patient outcomes. For instance, heart rate data of a recovering heart attack patient on a walk, collected by a smartwatch via a fitness app, would be valuable for a doctor administering follow-up care.

    Furthermore, integrating data from diverse sources can reveal patterns and correlations that may remain obscured when data is examined in isolation. These insights can be instrumental in predicting health trends, formulating preventive care and enhancing overall healthcare delivery.

    With a shared vision, the data ecosystem is then elevated from a mere repository of information into a dynamic, insight-generating network.
  1. Leveraging technology to stay ahead of the curve
    With health organisations managing sensitive data, such as storing patient records and treatment plans, the industry is especially exposed to the risk of cyberattacks, which could have severe consequences on patient care and overall operations.

    For one, an attack can disrupt the availability and integrity of electronic health records. This can lead to incorrect or delayed diagnoses, or even the inability to access critical patient information in emergency situations, which can be potentially life threatening.

    Healthcare institutions should thus seek to gain overall visibility across their entire environment in both assets and activity. All these elements will contribute to mitigating the risk from threat actors.

    Solutions such as security information and event management (SIEM), network detection and response (NDR), and user and entity behaviour analytics (UEBA) offer critical defensive capabilities. SIEM systems provide instantaneous analysis of security alerts generated from vast volumes of healthcare data, enabling swift threat detection. Meanwhile, NDR solutions ensure the security of data transfers throughout the expansive healthcare network by continuously monitoring for suspicious, potentially harmful activity, while UEBA employs machine learning and statistical analysis to detect unusual user behaviour that deviates from established patterns, helping identify potential insider threats or compromised credentials. 

Singapore’s healthcare reform is a promising venture towards a healthier future, enabled by cutting-edge technologies. However, this future can only be realised if a robust, trusted data sharing ecosystem is established and maintained. By adopting these strategies, we can work towards a system that respects and safeguards patient data, while harnessing its power for better healthcare.