Data is the new oil – a key driver of many business decisions in today’s world. The next leap in data evolution is where information can be easily shared across systems and used real-time for immediate insights, and perhaps even made easily available amongst countries.

When it comes to the benefits of harnessing big data for healthcare, the proof is in the pudding.

Data-driven analytics and decision making has helped doctors optimise the length of hospital stays, hence reducing patient costs. Safety and quality within hospitals are quantitatively measured and improved upon. Operating theatres are now efficiently utlised, with shorter wait time due to accurate time predictions for complex procedures.

However, there is still lots of room to create greater impact in the healthcare industry, and data democracy is the way to get there. 

“Today, we have to make information available to everyone who needs it at the point where they need it, in order to be efficient and to deliver the right care,” said Benedict Tan, Group Chief Digital Strategy Officer at SingHealth. Speaking at a webinar “Singapore Digital Dialogue Series – Improving Patient and Clinical Outcomes with the Power of Data”, Mr Tan shared his visions of a future where  data can be shared readily and transformed to aid clinicians in making better clinical decisions.

The webinar was organised by Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Asia Pacific in October 2020 where Mr Tan shared his thoughts on how digital information can be leveraged to shape the future of healthcare. This is an area close to his heart, as he leads SingHealth’s digitalisation efforts for transforming patient care delivery. “Our ultimate mission is to define tomorrow’s medicine,” he said.

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The four pillars of advancement

Digitalisation at SingHealth, Singapore’s largest public healthcare cluster, is driven by a clear roadmap involving four focus areas.

The first is the collection of the right data and making the information available to facilitate the work of clinicians, co-management of conditions with patients, service improvements and cost management by administrators. The IT revolution and maintenance of electronic medical records have made each patient encounter an opportunity to lay a new brick upon the collective tower of medical knowledge about the population.

“Insights from data help doctors today learn how to treat a whole cohort of patients or manage a disease”, he added.

The second area is about mining the most mobile and robust channels, such as using smartphones and wearable trackers to collect valuable data points from the general population. “The old American Express slogan ‘don’t leave home without it’ now applies to mobile devices,” said Mr Tan.

Next on the list is modernising the architecture. There is a shift towards developing IT systems that allow real-time information sharing across healthcare departments, or what is known as data democratisation.  This will enable IT to deliver the right information, at the right time to the right people in the right format.

Last but not least, there is the need to cultivate a data-driven culture that incorporates innovation and data security and protection.

Within SingHealth, efforts to digitalise has been met with overwhelmingly warm reception. “Clinicians are ready to jump onto the digitalisation bandwagon. My strategy is to enable them to look for an easy-to-use tool and put in place the relevant data protection so they can use the tool themselves to discover and develop more insights through analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Once this is done, we will propel further towards defining tomorrow’s medicine.” said Mr Tan.

However, Mr Tan was quick to add that while being “high tech” is a priority, so is being “high touch”, the element of human care and compassion. The backend churning and presentation of data mainly serves to help clinicians provide prompt, appropriate care and is no substitute for the therapeutic value of human interaction.

“At the end of the day, it is the doctor or the nurse who is providing the comfort or care to allay the patient’s concerns and anxiety.”

Data beyond borders

For all that data and competent caregivers can do at the institutional or local level however, experts are wondering if this is enough in the long run.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an example of how defeating the virus requires collaboration and shared resources.

If anonymised data from all countries could be made available and shared on a common platform for researchers to mine and work on, “I am pretty sure we may have a higher chance of getting a vaccine out much earlier, and a better one at that,” said Mr Tan.

At the same time, he conceded that data sharing processes and healthcare pathways are heavily influenced by factors like culture, government, insurance and the maturity of each country’s healthcare system. This makes uniformity of processes unrealistic.

“What we can achieve right now, at best, is an adaptation of the best practices in different countries,” he said.

Overcoming challenges

Employing data driven process improvements comes with its challenges. For example, obtaining permission from patients to access data collected on their mobile devices, and converting raw data into useful data for diagnosis, can be a laborious process.

“Although we have quite a comprehensive data warehouse, they are not necessarily in the format that can be used by clinicians for immediate analysis," he shared.

Mr Tan is taking the uphill task in good stride and with realistic expectations. As SingHealth undergoes digital transformation, one of his biggest hopes is for data to be more widely shared for insights generation, which involves overhauling the architecture of old IT systems – an evolution that takes time and investment.

Quoting Albert Einstein, who once said that he would continue looking to see if there were other needles even after finding the proverbial needle in the haystack, Mr Tan envisions a parallel where data empowers clinicians to find all the needles in the haystack. “Imagine if we could be like Einstein, it will make a huge difference.”

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