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COMMENTARY

Work smarter to tackle Singapore's healthcare skills shortage

SINGAPORE'S healthcare system takes the lead in efficiency, boasting the most favourable ratio of spend versus health outcomes, among 16 countries globally included in our latest Future Health Index report. However, Singapore has a gap in one area versus best in class and to maintain its leading position on the world stage, the Republic needs to address 'access' to care.

Singapore has a lower proportion of healthcare professionals per capita compared to healthcare systems in a number of other developed countries, with the Ministry of Health predicting that Singapore will need an additional 30,000 healthcare workers by 2020.

Recruiting and training more medical professionals definitely needs to be part of the solution. But this alone won't cut it as a long-term fix because the nub of the problem is that people are living longer.

Singapore's life expectancy has already grown from 75 to 83 within a generation, and the number of Singaporeans expected to make it to their 100th birthday is on the rise too. While this is great news for citizens, an increasingly elderly population - and the related problem of rising rates of chronic conditions - means more strain on medical resources. This is something that is only going to be compounded as more of us enjoy longer lives.

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In the face of this, Singapore needs more than just manpower; it also needs to fundamentally change how its healthcare is delivered.

TECHNOLOGY AS WELL AS TRAINING

Artificial intelligence (AI) could be a silver bullet, but it's still in its infancy in terms of its use in healthcare.

One of the major benefits of AI is its ability to automate routine, time-intensive tasks; this allows these tasks to be done more regularly than human resources alone would, and also frees up medical professionals' time to focus on other activities where their brain power can add the most value.

Take the monitoring of a patients' vital signs as an example; automating this routine task means real-time monitoring replaces a manual process. The benefits are that care teams can be alerted sooner to any changes in a person's condition, especially the early warning signs of cardiac and respiratory arrests, while at the same time staff are freed up to prioritise their time where they can make a bigger difference to patient care.

AI also has the potential to greatly improve efficiency in diagnosis. Like a smart personal "assistant", it can analyse vast quantities of data far quicker than any human brain could, by codifying years of experience of medical experts. This, coupled with machine learning, provides a way to scale the knowledge of the world's best doctors, and apply thousands upon thousands of data points to make quicker diagnoses. The result - a much-more efficient assessment process and more first-time-right diagnoses.

A third advantage is AI's ability to build up a detailed, single-patient view that spans all of the healthcare data ever collected on a person - from their vital signs, to any ailments they have ever suffered.

Immediate recall of a patient's entire medical history and the ability to overlay and analyse multiple data sets makes it easier to spot any anomalies than a single doctor alone could; this is not only a big leap forward in treatment of diseases, like cancers, that have higher survival rates when caught earlier, but it also brings healthcare systems closer to being able to shift their focus and resources from cure to prevention, which will be fundamental for tackling chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, themselves big burdens on Singapore's resources.

Yet, while automation and AI may already pose a threat to jobs in other industries, this won't be the case in healthcare - at least not in our lifetime. Far from it, in fact.

In both diagnosis and treatment, understanding context is vital, so human judgement will still have an integral role to play. This means that, unlike in some other industries, healthcare providers will need to focus on a subset of AI known as 'adaptive intelligence' - combining the power of AI and other technologies with the clinical, operational and contextual domain knowledge of medical professionals.

Less the 'man versus machine' of sci-fi, more man plus machine.

By facilitating routine, straight-forward tasks, AI frees up precious human resource and medical equipment to focus on more complex cases where they can make a bigger difference.

This will require a significant shift in training for the next generation of medical professionals coming into the field, and upskilling for existing staff that will need to evolve as quickly as the technology does.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Despite efforts to reduce chronic conditions through public awareness campaigns and significant investments in new healthcare facilities, the reality of an increasingly ageing population means that skill shortages and 'access' are going to be perennial problems unless Singapore drastically changes how healthcare is administered, and the roles of healthcare professionals themselves.

AI and automation present an opportunity for smarter working which could not only alleviate Singapore's manpower shortages, but also improve quality of care and outcomes for patients.

Investment in technology and training in data literacy will be key, but the end returns will be more than worth it.

  • The writer is CEO, Philips Asean-Pacific