Philanthropists are sometimes better placed to address healthcare issues than governments, says Mr Laurence Lien, Chairman, Lien Foundation. Speaking to SingHealth staff recently, Mr Lien shared why this is so and the difference philanthropy can make to healthcare. 

No matter how good a country’s healthcare system is, Mr Laurence Lien believes philanthropy can play a role in driving further improvements.

“The state cannot provide everything for everyone. There are certain issues that are too sensitive for governments to deal with and these are best handled by a non-profit,” Mr Laurence Lien told SingHealth staff at the Academic Hour Distinguished Speakers Series on 25 November 2019.

Death is one such taboo topic that the Lien Foundation has championed for more than a decade. Its ‘Life Before Death’ campaign has used print advertisements, broadcasts and events to encourage the public to discuss end-of-life matters and to debunk common misconceptions of hospices as dying places. Mr Lien said that such public education would be difficult for the health ministry to do, because the public may misinterpret the intention behind such a campaign. 

The Lien Foundation also commissioned its first Quality of Death Index in 2010 which ranked palliative care in 40 countries across the world. Singapore was listed in 18th place, and Mr Lien said this helped to spur policy change to improve end-of-life care in Singapore. 

Such transnational projects are difficult for governments to run because they are restricted by borders and the needs of their populations and electorate. However, Mr Lien said that philanthropy transcends such limitations and can therefore bridge gaps to support innovation to improve healthcare, particularly in developing countries that have limited resources or expertise. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation actively supports the development of medical devices that are designed for places with limited infrastructure. These include a battery-powered, portable ultrasound device that can be linked to a smart phone to monitor pregnant women and a mechanical syringe infusion pump that can be used anywhere because it does not require electricity. 

With the freedom to work with multiple partners towards a common goal, philanthropy has the potential to be more effective in creating and driving change. 

“There is a lot of diversity in the philanthropy sector. We can fail and not have to be accountable to the public and electors. We can take risks and this has really reformed the way the Lien Foundation has been doing its work,” said Mr Lien.

The Foundation has taken novel approaches to address healthcare challenges. One example is the development of the Jade Circle Nursing Home which aims to provide person-centred, dignified care for people with dementia. This new home, developed in partnership with the Khoo Chwee Neo Foundation and The Salvation Army Peacehaven Nursing Home, is purpose-built to enable residents to live and function independently and with dignity as they cope with their condition. Jade Circle Nursing Home also incorporates a day eldercare centre, Jade Circle Arena, which offers fun activities such as virtual reality, basketball hoops and hydrotherapy to incentivise the elderly to exercise.

The Lien Foundation has also actively galvanised partners in multiple sectors including health technology companies, institutes of higher learning, nursing homes, community clubs and volunteers to  re-imagine health promotion for the elderly. For instance, ‘Gym Tonic’ is an effective, strength-training programme that improves the functional abilities of the elderly and promotes exercise as medicine. The response to Gym Tonic has been so overwhelming that there are now 28 sites across Singapore and the Foundation is committed to setting up a total of 50 sites. Mr Lien reiterated that the multi-sectoral partnership is central to the programme’s success as it gives stakeholders a sense of empowerment and ownership.

“We are increasingly working with community clubs to set up these gyms. We make certain stipulations for all the gyms such as having full time, trained exercise therapists. Beyond that, every community club will have their own ideas. Each centre has its own character and what is distinctive is there is a lot of life in these centres,” shared Mr Lien. He added that what really draws participants to Gym Tonic sites is the sense of community and not the high-tech equipment.

Mr Lien noted that the philanthropic landscape in Singapore and in the region is gradually changing. Increasingly younger philanthropists are getting involved and supporting programmes that create social impact, tackle problems at their root cause or address neglected areas. Mr Lien, who is co-founder and CEO of the Asia Philanthropy Circle, which is a platform for Asian philanthropists to exchange, learn and collaborate, also observed that the younger generation wants to be more involved in the process of doing good rather than just providing financial support. This is a shift from the older generation of philanthropists which tends to focus more on giving towards issues that are close to their hearts such as supporting research for diseases that have impacted their loved ones. 

In sharing his experience in the philanthropic space, Mr Lien noted that different approaches are needed to reach out to different categories of donors. Personal encounters and stories tend to reach out more effectively to the older generation of philanthropists while it is more important to emphasise the impact of a programme when pitching it to younger philanthropists. He also stressed the need to invest more in impact evaluation and increased communication of what does and does not work so that donors and stakeholders can channel their energy and resources into effective programmes that will have a lasting positive impact on society.