We speak to Qu Xiaohua, Research Lead, Office of Academic Informatics, SingHealth about how IT plays a pivotal role in supporting the research efforts at SingHealth and driving tomorrow’s medicine.

With the threat of COVID-19 and the challenges that come with an ageing population, there is pressure for healthcare systems to evolve quickly. Healthcare research is crucial to developing the devices, diagnostic products, treatment regimens and more to keep up with the changing landscape.

Equally important is having the right technology and systems to support the research process. This is especially so in the age of rapid digitalisation.

“Data is the new ‘oil’ in healthcare research, and with the evolution of IT systems, we now have access to many types of data. But it is more crucial to be able to analyse these data meaningfully so that our researchers can derive new models of treatment more accurately and at a faster pace,” Mr Qu Xiaohua, Research Lead, Office of Academic Informatics, SingHealth shared. 

With over a decade of experience in the IT sector across various industries, Mr Qu made the leap to SingHealth in 2020, exposing him to a new world of healthcare tech. It has been a journey of learning new terminologies and processes, but one he thinks is worth it.

“What the IT department does can really help the community and the people; especially after seeing how the work I do contributes to improving patient’s lives” he affirmed.

Helping extract the “oil” for healthcare research

He shared that a major part IT professionals play is making sure the data collected is accessible to researchers. As such, one of his latest projects is ODySSey, a purpose-built data science platform that will streamline the collection, management and governance of SingHealth’s research data.

In the past, a patient’s data would be collected and held by the department or clinician they interacted with. ODySSey therefore stands out for being the first unified platform to consolidate this information. 

“By linking all the data together on ODySSey, researchers will have a more holistic view of patients, and perhaps be able to gain more insights about treatment,” Mr Qu enthused. He added that this function, coupled with features that enable researchers to “self-service”, will be monumental in speeding up the research process and allowing SingHealth to become a data-driven organisation.

Knowing what the “right” problem is

He noted that with the ever-changing healthcare and technology landscape, challenges for those in the IT field will be aplenty. However, what keeps him going each day is this: “I am interested in solving the right problem, using the right technology, and with the right people,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Mr Qu shared an example about a request he received to develop an interactive system for data management. Upon closer analysis of the problem and in-depth discussions with the project team and stakeholders, he realised that what they needed was a system to track changes made to the data, with an added capability to limit access to relevant collaborators.

He came up with a simple solution. Instead of building new infrastructure from scratch, his team modified an existing electronic form to perform the necessary tasks.

“With the right understanding of the requirements, we found the right solution, and identified the right people to implement the solution,” he stated, reiterating that the only way to know what is “right”, is to speak to the people on the ground.

A shift from reactive to proactive problem-solving

Having a collaborative mentality is also important as it will enable IT departments to proactively take the lead in identifying gaps and developing relevant solutions, Mr Qu said.

For example, while working closely with research teams, he noticed that a major challenge researchers faced was to obtain security clearance to use the commercial cloud. With an understanding of the obstacles faced, his team was able to propose the use of the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Control Tower. This service would make it easier to set-up multiple accounts for different parties to access the cloud, while still enforcing high standards of data security. 

To him, this is an example of how IT professionals can add value, inject creativity and lead innovation in an organisation. On his part, he also empowers his team to take ownership by giving them autonomy in their work, and provides support through regular brainstorming sessions to help problem-solve. 

Looking ahead to future of medicine, Mr Qu said: “I hope that maybe in the next ten years we can find treatment or cures for issues like cancer, diabetes, or even myopia, and that my role in IT will play a significant part in the process.” No doubt, it will take tremendous effort from all stakeholders. However, he likens the journey to the treks he takes with his son.

“There were times my son wants to give up half way due to the hot weather, but we persevered. It is worth it because at the end of the journey, we always enjoy the nice view and we feel refreshed,” he said.

And so he continues the trek to drive research in healthcare, one IT system at a time, with his eyes set on the prize: A future where IT supports the development of better medicine for patients, better engagement with the community, and better health for the people.