December 2017 | Issue 33
Where will the future of healthcare take us?

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By Grace Ang, Senior Executive, Communications & External Relations

 

From advances in surgical robotics to taking on multi-million dollar industries, more than 400 local and international experts from the fields of health and technology came together at the inaugural FutureHealth 2017 conference to debate the future of healthcare.

Jointly organised by LKCMedicine, the Centre for Healthcare Innovation (CHI) and NTU Institute for Health Technologies (HealthTech NTU), the conference, held at LKCMedicine’s Clinical Sciences Building from 8 to 10 November, was graced by Minister for Health Mr Gan Kim Yong as guest-of-honour.

Organised at a time when healthcare spending is rising exponentially due to a rapidly ageing population, the conference’s topic “Innovations Transforming Healthcare” was pertinent. With new technologies accounting for some of the rise in healthcare spending, how to ensure that Singapore healthcare remains affordable, accessible and of high quality was a key focus.

LKCMedicine Executive Vice-Dean and conference co-chair Professor Lionel Lee highlighted in his welcome remarks that “FutureHealth 2017 will explore the potential success of healthcare delivery by way of a unique combination of the opportunities for health workforce transformation alongside the opportunities afforded by new discoveries in medical management and solutions including what modern day and future technology can offer.”

CHI CEO Mr David Dhevarajulu, who co-chaired the conference with Prof Lee, added, “[A] key segment of our conference programme is learning from other industries,” urging the audience to “change our mental model of care we do need to look beyond our paradigms”.

 

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L to R: LKCMedicine Executive Vice-Dean Professor Lionel Lee and CHI CEO Mr David Dhevarajulu giving the opening speeches for the inaugural FutureHealth 2017 conference

It was, therefore, fitting for the Minister to make two complementary announcements as he officially opened the event. Addressing the FutureHealth audience of healthcare professionals, entrepreneurs and engineers, Mr Gan announced that healthcare providers in both public and private sectors will have to contribute to the National Electronic Health Record (NEHR) system to provide more comprehensive data for better patient care. He also announced a $20 million incentive scheme for early adopters who contribute to the system.

The second announcement was the launch of the sector’s own industry transformation map, which encapsulates three core thrusts: building a strong local workforce through job and skills development; increasing productivity in the healthcare workforce; and accelerating innovation by working hand-in-hand with service providers in the industry, education and research institutions to develop tomorrow’s solutions.

Emphasising the importance of strong partnerships between patients, innovators and healthcare providers to bring about better healthcare, Mr Gan commented, “This conference is timely as it brings together all the important stakeholders in the pursuit of this important goal.”

The journey to transforming the healthcare industry is one to be taken on with commitment by all partners. “Only if we share the same vision for future health, can we lay a strong foundation for better skills and better work for our healthcare professionals, and deliver better care for Singaporeans,” Mr Gan concluded.

With such a vision put forth by the Minister, the conference presented an opportune time to celebrate innovative and revolutionary ideas designed to enhance the quality of healthcare. One of these was through the annual National Healthcare Innovation Productivity Medals which were awarded to healthcare teams in recognition of their excellent ideas. Organised by the Ministry of Health, the awards are sponsored by the Ng Teng Fong Healthcare Innovation Programme. Among the winners was a robotic arm that automates 80 per cent of the medication dispensing workflow and increases process efficiency substantially, while the Excellence Medal winners developed a highly consolidated patient appointment system.

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Minister of Health Mr Gan Kim Yong made two exciting announcements that could benefit the future of Singapore's health


The uberisation of healthcare – more good or harm?

The potential of big data and workforce transformation were themes that were echoed throughout the three days by many experts from within the healthcare industry and beyond. One of the highlights of this discussion was the debate between a Boom (proposition) team and Doom (opposition) team on the uberisation of healthcare. Each team, made up of a pair of medical industry experts, argued their stand on the future of an increasingly digitalised healthcare industry.

While the Boom team articulated that IT-enabled systems including self-monitoring tools and e-consultations serve to empower patients and enhance their healthcare experiences, the Doom team had qualms about the confidentiality of digitalised patient systems. They also argued that doctor-patient relationship and communication are crucial in delivering accurate diagnosis and treatment and should not be extinguished by uberisation.

Going the way of technology, the audience was then invited to vote via the FutureHealth conference app for the team with the most persuasive argument. Indisputably, the Boom team won as technology and digitalisation have brought about tremendous improvements to medicine and healthcare.

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A fiery debate between the Boom team and the Doom team tackles issues with the uberisation of healthcare

Technologies indeed have proven to reach levels of efficiency far surpassing human capabilities. While healthcare professionals and patients will inevitably lean towards new medical technologies, technology per se will never be able to replace the authentic human touch at the core of doctor-patient relationship.
To have the best of both worlds, a balance between the two must be achieved. At the same time, the healthcare workforce must also move at equal pace in order to harness the full potential and benefits that these new technologies bring.

But technology’s impact goes beyond tele-medicine and electronic records. Its ripple effects reach all the way to the very role definition of healthcare providers. Sir David Dalton, Chief Executive of the newly formed Northern Care Alliance NHS Group brought his insights of how technology changes the way we work, allocate and manage resources. In his keynote lecture, Sir Dalton shared how a new governance model, which required previously autonomous institutions to hand some control over their operations to an umbrella body, allowed for greater personalisation of care packages for the community. From his lecture were valuable takeaways as Singapore’s public healthcare system is undergoing a restructuring into three integrated regional healthcare clusters.


When heads are put together

But it is not just large industry-wide changes that are transforming healthcare; sometimes partnerships between two individuals can bring about significant change. Nobel laureate and LKCMedicine Nanyang Visiting Professor Barry Marshall gave one such example during his talk, which kick-started the conference. Together with his fellow collaborator Professor Robin Warren, the pair was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori as the cause of stomach ulcers. Prof Marshall shared his struggle to convince the healthcare establishment and a multi-million pharmaceutical sector of their discovery, forcing him in the end to down the bacterium to validate his findings.

Speaking about how his discovery led to a cure of H. pylori-related stomach ulcers and cancers, Prof Marshall said he believes that medical breakthroughs like his will result in surprising new solutions and even bigger discoveries.

Another seemingly unlikely partnership between a self-proclaimed handyman and a number of surgeons has led to clinical successes in bone regeneration and remodelling not thought possible. NTU School of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering Professor Teoh Swee Hin created tailored solutions for extraordinary clinical challenges for patients around the world. Sharing the stage with one of his partners, Senior Consultant and Orthopaedic Surgeon at the Sultan Qaboos University Hospital Dr Sultan Al-Maskari, the two discussed how their collaboration could spell a new breakthrough in bone regeneration.

Their stories were indeed inspiration to many in the audience, sowing seeds for future innovations.


Blossoming partnerships

Closer to home is an innovation that arose out of inspiration from a crab’s claw, the EndoMaster. This robotics-assisted system removes gastro-intestinal tumours through an endoscope without the need for surgical incisions. Chief Operating Officer of EndoMaster Mr Colin Tan shared how the system combines both robotics and artificial intelligence to carry out a less invasive and more precise procedure compared to current surgical methods.

Another innovation which piqued the audience’s interest was the iSR'obot Mona Lisa, a prostate biopsy device. This newfound method collects tissues with minimal invasion, reducing pain and shortening recovery periods. The home-grown device has also proven to detect cancer with higher accuracy than traditional methods, explained Head and Senior Consultant of the Department of Urology at the Singapore General Hospital Associate Professor Henry Ho.

These bright minds took to the stage to share what sparked their innovations, giving advice about the road of collaboration and dishing out secrets to their successful partnerships.


Lions' Lair

While these success stories are already transforming care, the conference’s closing segment Lion’s Lair championed up-and-coming innovations. Adopting a dragon’s den format, where innovators pitch their ideas to a panel of judges to garner funding, two presenters did their best to wow the judges and audience with their projects.

First was an automated optical device that could increase the public’s eye screening rates, diagnose eye conditions early and potentially reduce blindness in the population. Adjunct Assistant Professor Rupesh Agrawal, Consultant at the National Healthcare Group Eye Institute, shared that this device is a solution to the shortage of mechanisms for primary eye care in India.

Second was NTU’s semi-autonomous social robot, named EDGAR-2, which is capable of conversing with patients via human-robot interactions. Dr Wong Choon Yue, Research Fellow at NTU’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, wowed the crowd, showcasing EDGAR-2’s potential to empower doctors in reaching more patients remotely via their robotic avatar in the future. With the rising demands on healthcare, robots like EDGAR-2 can increase efficiency, reduce costs and improve the quality of patient care.

After each pitch, the audience was asked how deep they would dig into their virtual wallets for each project. While both projects garnered investments totalling more than $100,000, the judges were perhaps a more critical audience. However, they offered valuable feedback with which both innovations could develop into life-saving solutions in the near future.
 

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NTU's social robot EDGAR-2 made his debut at the Lion's Lair

Glimpsing the future – a showcase for LKCMedicine and NTU scientists

Another highlight of the conference was a series of parallel sessions which showcased scientists’ and researchers’ findings in Future Diagnostics, Future Therapeutics and Future Systems. Proposing a future in which speed is key in precision diagnostics, LKCMedicine Associate Professor of Human & Microbial Genetics Eric Yap presented on real-time polymerase chain reaction detection, using endemic dengue to illustrate how precision diagnostics could improve population health. In his words, future diagnostics is about “bringing biology into the digital world”.

Also speaking at one of the parallel sessions was LKCMedicine Nanyang Assistant Professor Guan Xue Li, who gave a presentation on novel tools for systems health and medicine, including utilising omics technologies as a predictive tool. Sharing her vision of a future in which P4 medicine (predictive, preventive, personalised and participatory) becomes a central part of healthcare, she said, “We can predict, prevent and personalise health easily with the various technologies that are being developed.”


Timely conference

At the cusp of moving into a new year, the FutureHealth 2017 conference was timely, bringing together NTU’s academic expertise in bioengineering, nanotechnology and biomedical research, with CHI’s excellence and thought-leadership on workforce transformation and innovation.

The three organisers were clear that to bring about future health in a meaningful way for everyone, it is essential that the right innovations are co-created in the lab and answer the most pertinent clinical questions, something that can only be achieved by working together across disciplines and even industries.

Highlighting that meaningful healthcare transformation requires both new technologies and new ways of doing things, scientific committee co-chair and HealthTech NTU Executive Director Professor Russell Gruen said, “At a time when healthcare everywhere faces profound challenges and substantial pressures to innovate, this high potential partnership between CHI, LKCMedicine and HealthTech NTU is very much needed. We are serious, capable and different and we come together to embrace the challenge of transforming healthcare and of ensuring Singapore's future health.”


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L to R: Assoc Prof Wong Hon Tym and Prof Russell Gruen giving their closing address to end the inaugural FutureHealth 2017 conference

The first FutureHealth Conference showcased many technological innovations that bring about enhanced quality of healthcare. As Albert Einstein said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” To tackle the increasingly challenging healthcare issues of tomorrow, industry experts, researchers and scientists must put their heads together to envision a better future where many possibilities lie waiting to be discovered.

Scientific committee co-chair and CHI Clinical Director Associate Professor Wong Hon Tym summed this up in his closing address, saying, “This partnership with LKCMedicine and NTU has been really symbolic and it is what FutureHealth is all about.”