Globally, SingHealth is one of the earliest adopters of social prescribing. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - As Singapore’s population ages and chronic diseases become more common, general practitioners will get training from 2023 to improve care for patients’ social, mental and physical well-being outside the hospital setting.

SingHealth Community Hospitals is discussing with professional bodies – the College of Family Physicians Singapore and the Academy of Medicine, Singapore – to introduce this into their overall programmes, said Associate Professor Lee Kheng Hock, deputy chief executive of education and community partnerships at SingHealth Community Hospitals, on Tuesday.

He was speaking on the sidelines of the inaugural First Asia Pacific Social Prescribing Conference.

This push for a social and physical environment that supports health, also known as social prescription, follows the nation’s Healthier SG preventive care strategy announced in September.

Said Prof Lee: “Patients in community hospitals with the greatest challenges tend to be those that have the toughest social determinants of health.

“They live alone, their housing conditions are not ideal, they don’t have access to food, they are in financial difficulties... So we realise that even if we do our best, the outcome is not satisfactory and the next time we see them, their condition will have deteriorated significantly.”

Speaking at the conference at the Singapore General Hospital Campus, Minister-in-charge of Social Services Integration and Minister for National Development Desmond Lee noted that social prescription plays a key role in making it easier for people to sustain their health.

He said: “Social prescribing complements healthcare in institutional settings by connecting residents to local, non-clinical social programmes such as group exercise programmes, community gardening or smoking cessation programmes.

“This helps them lead a healthier lifestyle and benefit from stronger community support and addresses social issues early on before they lead to worsening health.”

The conference featured more than 20 overseas and local experts from organisations, such as the World Health Organisation and Britain’s National Health Service, and was attended by close to 1,000 people.

On Tuesday, Mr Lee also officially launched the SingHealth Community Hospitals Office of Learning (School) to train health, social and community care workers.

Among those trained under programmes by School, which was formed in 2019, is former magazine editor Caral Goh, who left her job to pursue her passion for helping patients.

“Before (training), organising activities was just a pastime. But now I’ve learnt that the well-being of the patient is not just within the hospital, but goes beyond discharge and extends to the home and into the community,” said the 45-year-old part-time patient activity coordinator at Sengkang Community Hospital.

Globally, SingHealth is one of the earliest adopters of social prescribing, beginning with a pilot in October 2019, said Mr Lee.

It has since introduced well-being coordinators – non-clinical staff incorporated into clinical teams to identify and support patients who face social risk factors that may affect their health – in its community hospitals.

To help follow through with healthcare in the community, there are plans to ramp up the number of coordinators from eight to a total of 60.

They will be deployed across institutions under SingHealth’s Regional Health System by the end of 2023, said Prof Lee.

To date, well-being coordinators have screened more than 1,570 patients.

One such patient who has benefited is former taxi driver Tay Tam Cheng, 80, who was hospitalised at Outram Community Hospital for a knee injury on Nov 15.

With the help of the hospital’s well-being coordinator, Mr Tay has picked up painting and Rummikub, and found a senior activity centre in Yew Tee where he can continue playing the game.

“This is the first time I have heard of such centres. I’m looking forward to playing Rummikub at the centre after finding out that my kakis have been discharged,” he said.

From the first quarter of 2023, Singhealth Community Hospitals will partner the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to systematically map community assets linked to patient well-being, strengthening the integration of services between health and social care sectors.

These assets include community clubs under the People’s Association, ActiveSG Masters Club under SportSG, and informal community groups and activities.