First-class patient care comes at a price: to ensure hygiene standards in clinics and operating rooms, disposable items are used to a considerable extent for patient care. According to the Ministry of Health, hospitals in Singapore generate over 5,700 tonnes of waste each year.

With patient safety at the highest priority, is there a way to reduce waste in healthcare without compromising the quality of care?

That was the question posed at the SingHealth Hackathon 2023, a two-day biannual event that brings together SingHealth, Duke-NUS, tertiary students and community partners to conceptualise, prototype and pitch their solutions to create a more environmentally conscious healthcare industry.

This year’s theme "Towards Zero Waste" was inspired by the GreenGov.SG initiative launched in 2021 to drive the public sector to become more sustainable.


Owning their domains of expertise

"When healthcare professionals focus on providing optimal care to patients, they may believe that the responsibility for sustainability lies with someone else. However, the solutions offered by others may not be practical," said Team Druggies’ Dr Joanne Yeo, Consultant, Department of Anaesthesia and Surgical Intensive Care, Changi General Hospital (CGH).

Given the harmful impact that intravenous drug waste has on the environment, the team — comprising members from CGH’s anaesthesiology and pharmaceutical departments — set out to solve this problem by designing a new drug disposal container that could be easily incorporated into the department's workflow. Their efforts and impressive prototype earned them first place.

Second place went to Lil Lumos, the facilities management team at Singapore General Hospital (SGH). To automatically adjust lighting in hallways and better save electricity, they developed a solution that pairs light intensity and motion sensors with wireless Bluetooth nodes.

Two teams tied for third: PharmaGreen, the pharmacy team from Sengkang General Hospital (SKH), for their idea to reduce plastic use in medication dispensing, and Arrow, from SGH's Division of Estate Management & Division of Service Support, for their idea to reuse reverse osmosis (RO) water from dialysis centres for cleaning and irrigation.


Limitation draws out creativity

Although the teams' expertise made it easier for them to understand the gaps they needed to close, they had to get creative to overcome the obstacles faced in their innovation journey. For Team Druggies, one of their biggest challenges was communicating the visualisation of the drug disposal container to the judges.

Without sophisticated 3D modelling or design skills, they gamely used a disposable coffee cup they found in the pantry to build a simple but remarkable prototype instead.

PharmaGreen also met a roadblock when they were unable to find an alternative packaging material to replace plastic. From their research, materials like paper may not be more environmentally friendly and would wear out faster.

They pivoted their idea to target patient attitudes and behaviours towards plastic, and eventually proposed having a green LED light up for 10 seconds each time a patient chooses not to take a plastic bag, as well as putting up a sign displaying the cumulative number of plastic bags saved.

"As this is a recognition of positive behaviour, we hope it can motivate patients to make environmentally responsible choices when picking up medications at our pharmacy," PharmaGreen’s Law Rei Yin, explained, adding that their Hackathon experience reinforced the need to be adaptable and "expect the unexpected".


Co-creation crucial for innovation success

"Each member contributed in different ways to help us consider various aspects, such as the processes we had to take, technology available, feasibility of implementation and safety concerns," Lil Lumos’ Matthew Tay shared, noting that collaboration with other disciplines was also critical.

Notably, this collaboration went beyond the borders of SingHealth. Teams received mentorship from subject matter experts in organisations such as Singapore Institute of Technolgy (SIT) and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). Arrow also sent their RO wastewater sample to a commercial lab to ensure that it was safe for reuse.

"The hackathon opened our eyes to the possibilities and expertise we can tap into within and outside of our health system," said Team Druggies’ Dr Michelle Tan. "We learned that with their support, innovation is within reach — even for regular healthcare workers.


Hackathon rewards

This is arguably why when reflecting on the journey taken, the teams share that winning is merely the icing on top of the cake.

More importantly, they have seen how small changes can have a significant difference in resource usage: Lil Lumos’ lighting solution has the potential to save up to 37.5 percent in energy costs compared to leaving the lights on all day and Arrow’s initiative has the potential water savings of what 63 households use per day.

They have also been empowered to make a difference. While Arrow and PharmaGreen are refining their proposals, Team Druggies is applying for funding to develop their product, and Lil Lumos has received the green light for initial trials.

"The key is to take the first step," Matthew Tay from Lil Lumos added. "With the advancement of technology, there is potential to find solutions that can improve healthcare operations, both medical and otherwise."

Thank you to our participants, mentors, judges and partners for making this a successful event!