Analyzing data for healthcare: insights from the UK and Singapore

From left: Jim Lewis, Joshua Tjahjono and Teo Chin Seng

While Singapore and the UK are separated by a distance of over 10,000 kilometres, there are several similarities between the two nations, especially in terms of healthcare. Both have ageing populations with low birth rates, similar legal codes and mature economies with a largely technology-savvy population.

On July 30 2014, at the Next-Gen Healthcare Executive Leadership Briefing organized by Healthcare Innovation in Singapore, a panel discussion was held to discuss issues and concerns of top IT professionals in the global healthcare industry. In particular, the role of technology to augment the efficiency of healthcare systems across Singapore and the UK was compared.

The topics discussed include the problem of aging populations in Singapore and the UK, the benefits and challenges of big data, mobility and wearable devices, as well as medical tourism. Across each topic, the panelists expressed a common thread: the need to improve the quality of healthcare through better use of data and technology, targeting the aging population especially.

Aging Populations

Due to longer life expectancy today - compared to a few decades ago - the aging population has increased dramatically. Because of this phenomenon, especially in developed countries such as Singapore and the UK, the demands made upon national healthcare systems have correspondingly increased.

In Singapore, for example, life expectancy has increased by 20 years over the past few decades, putting a strain on healthcare facilities.

However, according to Joshua Tjahjono, Director of IT at Sengkang Health/IHIS Singapore, this trend is not unique to Singapore.

“This is not only for Singapore, but for the rest of the Eastern world, where the aging demographic is growing at the same rate as in Singapore – one in every five people by the year 2030.” he says.

To solve this problem, public and private healthcare organizations in Singapore are working with the government to provide better healthcare facilities, such as building new hospitals and medical centers.

But according to Teo Chin Seng, Director of Operations at IHIS Singapore, improving healthcare infrastructure is, at most, a short-term solution.

“There's always a limit to what we can do in terms of managing this population. Most probably, providing facilities is an interim solution. Creating new facilities actually imposes new problems as well.”

The answer, the panelists agree, is to empower individuals and local communities so that they become more self-reliant and do not always need to visit the hospital for treatment.

The real question, Teo asks, is “Can we actually introduce technology to people so that they can do a bit of self-help“?

Using Big Data

Instead of focusing on building physical facilities and infrastructure, governments and organizations are taking a more targeted approach to solving healthcare problems.

One method is by using data to understand the population’s healthcare requirements; this itself is not a new idea. Traditionally, governments have done this by manually conducting surveys and analyzing them.

However, traditional censuses are time-consuming and do not always yield accurate and up-to-date results. The panelists agreed that big data opens up new possibilities, both in terms of healthcare records and census counts, which can help national and local organizations to better understand their patients or potential patients.

“Statistically [using population census], you can track trends every six months. But with big data, you can now understand trends we couldn’t previously see, for example, patients who have two chronic diseases, or heart disease patients versus diabetes patients,” explains Tjahjono.

Jim Lewis, Chief Architect for Health at ATOS, UK, adds “I would say big data has huge potential for the future. I think in the UK, we're slowly finding that a lot of the localities are doing much better analytics to understand who the high demand patients are.”

Lewis - who has worked closely with the UK’s  National Health Service (NHS) developing technology on the ground over the past seven years - suggests that from his experience, analyzing data can sometimes yield surprising results.