Mr Federico Donato
President, EuroCham Singapore
Ladies and gentlemen
1. Thank you for inviting me to the launch of EuroCham’s Whitebook on ‘The Future of Healthcare and Wellbeing’. Before I start delivering my speech, I would like to thank the European community for standing by Singapore for this difficult two and a half years.
Health Starts From Our Daily Lives
2. It is a timely publication, just after the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced a major healthcare reform effort, that we call Healthier SG. This is a very complex undertaking. It involves many moving parts, many partners – private and public – and many stakeholders.
3. But the idea of Healthier SG is actually a fairly simple one, i.e. if we can focus on keeping people healthy, through preventive care, we can avoid a lot of suffering, financial burden, and emotional burden of patients, their families and society as a whole later on. Yet it is difficult to muster the energy and resources to do preventive care, because we always focus on what is urgent, and we do not focus on what is less urgent but more important. And preventive care is as urgent but more important. But, post COVID-19, we want to give this our best shot.
4. COVID-19 is too big a crisis to be wasted. During the pandemic, as countries switched to emergency response mode, healthcare practices and policies got turned on their heads. In the past before COVID-19, there were always concerns about adequacy of IT systems; there was always difficulty in disseminating rules and ensuring adherence; there was always worry about potential abuse by a minority, but all these bent to the needs for a crisis response during COVID-19.
5. Now, as the dust settles and we earned a well-deserving respite, we find ourselves inheriting a new healthcare edifice that is perhaps fitter for peace time. We have IT systems that now link up all healthcare providers. We have individuals who have downloaded apps that help them stay healthy.
6. We now have a whole national set up that can conduct diagnostics and deliver vaccinations to the masses. We have an established practice of telemedicine for those recovering from COVID-19 at home. I would say one of the biggest advantages of COVID-19 is that people now understand vaccines, what they do, and what the risks and benefits are.
7. Our hospitals have a stronger system to right-site patients to community and home care. Most importantly, people are prepared to heed public healthcare messages.
8. The accomplishments during COVID-19 provide the impetus for us to launch Healthier SG now. Having gone through COVID-19 infection waves, we have the systems, policies and practices to translate the vision into reality, and usher in a new era of healthcare.
9. There are major differences between acute and preventive care. Acute care is often episodic can be painful, difficult, costly and distressing for patients and their loved ones. And it often happens in hospitals, in operating theatres, surrounded by doctors and nurses.
10. Preventive care on the other hand is not episodic. It has to be done as a sustained effort, and if it is done early enough, it is easy, affordable, enjoyable, surrounded by friends and families.
11. Because of these differences, patients have become consumers, and vice versa when it comes to preventive care. I therefore believe preventive care opens up far more opportunities for innovation and participation by enterprises and industries, and we have a great opportunity to build a strong public-private-people partnership for health through Healthier SG and preventive care.
12. This is where an organisation like EuroCham comes in, and my pitch to you today. Let me highlight three areas that companies can participate in.
13. First, food.
14. We are what we eat. Good food choices nourish our health, while bad choices literally poison us over the long term. Unfortunately, there is a perception that healthy food is expensive – associated with exotic superfoods and special prescription diets – or unenjoyable, because we must somehow be deprived in order to be healthy.
15. All these are wrong. The best food intervention for the majority of us, is to simply cut down salt, sugar and oil, and by doing so, you can avoid severe chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, heart diseases and diabetes.
16. Take for example, salt intake. Based on the National Nutrition Survey 2018/19, Singaporeans consumed an average of 3.6g of sodium per day, which is higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended amount of less than 2g per day for adults. Sugar is even more harmful than salt.
17. So in my home, we learnt to cook with less salt and soya sauce. It is not a deprivation, because we learnt to appreciate the natural flavours of ingredients and improve our cooking skills. As a personal habit, I drink beverages such as coffee and tea, including the occasional bubble tea, without sugar. These changes in personal eating habits do not cost more. But they make a big difference for our health later on.
18. Businesses can help bring about such personal habitual adjustments. For instance, Knorr, a brand under Unilever, has produced chicken seasoning powder with 25% less sodium content. And I don’t think it costs more.
19. MOH will continue to work with the food companies and F&B outlets, some of you represented here, to increase the range and variety of lower-sodium salt, sauces and seasonings.
20. Producers of beverages are also reformulating their drinks, to cut down on sugar content, and incorporating suitable labels to guide consumers on their choices.
21. In time, we should also see the advent of a more affordable range of plant-based foods. Plant-based food, especially plant-based meat, currently is indeed more expensive, but I hope not for long. Singapore currently leads the Asian market in terms of plant-based food consumption, and more sustainable plant-based meats are making its way to our local supermarkets and restaurants, and I hope prices will moderate over time.
22. For instance, The Vegetarian Butcher, a Dutch brand, has partnered The Social Kitchen in Singapore to offer plant-based meat alternatives in its restaurant menu.
23. In a food haven like Singapore where people have acquired a sophisticated taste for food, I believe there are tremendous opportunities to develop a vibrant and healthy food scene. And I look forward to your contributions to that.
24. Second, exercise.
25. Like food, exercise need not be expensive and inaccessible, requiring coaches and personal trainers for example, personal yoga trainers. None of that. It is really about standing instead of sitting, taking the stairs, going for regular brisk walks or jogs or cycling trips, cutting back on our device time, we are just simply watching too much of that, and leading a much less sedentary lifestyle. All these do not cost much.
26. The biggest determinant of exercise is personal initiative and discipline. Our Health Promotion Board runs a very successful National Steps Challenge. It is the world’s first population-level fitness tracker-based activity to encourage Singaporeans to move about more. Today, it has over 700,000 participants, or one-fifth of our adult population. Nine in 10 of them took up the challenge with self-organised exercise activities – they do not need coaches, or personal trainers.
27. The National Steps Challenge became a success. If we are honest, it is because we use technology appropriately, so that it becomes accessible, easy to join, easy to follow, with a very simple and affordable to the government incentive system. It involves wearables, apps and then an AI engine that nudges us to keep up our good exercise habits.
28. Today, we are seeing an explosion of digital apps that promise to enhance preventive care. Beyond exercise, they can help you regulate your sleep patterns, your eating habits, so on and so forth.
29. There are also digital diagnostics, to help patients better manage their chronic conditions. Abbott, Indigo and Philips have all developed solutions for remote monitoring of patients, so they have become great partners for all our doctors. Doctors see you once every half a year, but you have your apps with you, day-in, day-out, monitoring and making sure you are doing the right things, keeping your chronic illness in check. Diabetic patients can now have a sensor placed under their skin to measure their glucose levels, helping them keep their glucose levels in check.
30. If we can incorporate all these innovations with an overarching national promotion effort, we can make great strides in enhancing population health.
31. Finally, becoming healthier can also be a matter of enhancing your employees’ welfare. Afterall, a healthier workforce is a more productive workforce.
32. Our workplace is a very important part of our social circles, and a very natural touchpoint to encourage people to change their living habits. Over the years, we have worked with companies to put in place various workplace wellness programmes.
33. Companies have also stepped up to initiate ways to promote mental wellness in your workplaces. SCOR, a member of EuroCham, organises well-being programmes, such as yoga and meditation, for its employees. SCOR has also established a mental wellness line to assist employees who need help and implemented a ‘Friday no-meetings’ day.
34. The COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted some of these programmes when many of our employees worked from home. With employees now returning to workplaces, I hope companies will double down on re-introducing many of these programmes for self-care, fitness and wellness.
35. When Healthier SG is ready to roll out, I hope in the middle of next year, I hope companies will encourage your employees to enrol in the programme, activate your panel doctors to support the national initiative, and consider introducing small incentives to drive better health and well-being of your employees.
36. The EuroCham has been an important stakeholder and partner of Singapore all these years. It shares our national concerns over a range of topics. My last conversation with you was over free trade and openness, and even as we weather the COVID-19 pandemic, we make an effort to engage each other on such important topics.
37. I thank the Chamber for giving me the opportunity to share with you the Healthier SG strategy, and how I think the members of EuroCham can play a significant role in this national healthcare reform strategy. I look forward to forging an even stronger partnership with you, through Healthier SG. Thank you very much.