Time to refocus on longer-term healthcare issues after Covid-19: Heng Swee Keat

SINGAPORE – The Covid-19 pandemic has shown what can be achieved when there is a concerted and determined global effort to tackle a serious public health issue, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Friday (Sept 17).

But this momentum needs to be sustained to tackle longer-term healthcare issues, he said at the opening of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress 2021 virtual event.

Noting that Covid-19 has been “one of the greatest challenges that modern medicine has ever faced”, with a human toll of more than 4.5 million deaths globally so far, Mr Heng said one silver lining is that the crisis brought about an unprecedented level of international scientific collaboration.

“The challenge is how we can ride on the momentum catalysed by Covid-19 to galvanise the same dedication and commitment to push new frontiers and revolutionise medicine.”

The acute phase of the pandemic will eventually fade, but other longer-term challenges such as ageing populations and chronic diseases will not.

Moreover, chronic diseases are no less a crisis than Covid-19, causing an estimated 40 million deaths annually, Mr Heng said.

With rapidly ageing populations in many countries, healthcare systems everywhere will have to rethink how to deliver holistic and sustainable manner.

The minister outlined three ways to tackle the challenges ahead.

First, interventions must happen earlier, when they are more effective and cost less.

This will require early detection of those at risk through efforts such as the Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes (Gusto) study, which identified that one in five Singaporean pregnant women developed gestational diabetes.

Second, the interventions need to be more precise and targeted by taking a patient’s genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors into account, Mr Heng said.

Precision medicine can be given a boost through national genomics programmes that seek to understand Asian genetics, as many such programmes elsewhere focus on Caucasian populations.

DPM Heng Swee Keat speaking at the opening of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress 2021 virtual event. PHOTO: SINGHEALTH

Third, innovations should harness ideas across different domains.

This is where the newly launched SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Biodiversity Medicine can play a role.

Nature and biodiversity can contribute significantly to human health and wellness, said Mr Heng, adding that 25 per cent of drugs used in modern medicine come from rainforest plants, while 70 per cent of cancer drugs are inspired by nature.

These steps are just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to new possibilities in science and healthcare, Mr Heng said.

“Let us channel the can-do spirit that Covid-19 has sparked within the scientific community, to tackle our longer-term structural challenges.”

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