Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat told reporters after a tour of Changi General Hospital and Saint Andrew's Community Hospital on Wednesday (6 December) that he expects to see sharp rise of government expenditure on healthcare in the next three to five years.
He said that with the country’s ageing population and advancing medical technologies, government spending in this area would go up even more in the longer run.
Between 2011 and 2016, annual healthcare expenditure more than doubled from around S$4 billion to S$10 billion in which the Minister of Health (MOH) received this year.
"As medical technology improves, as our population ages, the demands will grow, and the need to provide for that will also grow," he said, adding his prediction that an annual budget will rise to "at least" $13 billion from 2020.
However, he noted that the figure "is just an initial estimate" and will depend on "how well we are able to manage in the next few years", adding, "It's something Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and I continue to discuss, getting our projections right and getting our resources ready to meet that need."
"Now, we have to look at various ways in which we can ensure high-quality care, as well as affordable care. Part of that work is really looking at how we may shift towards a most effective way of caring for our people," the minister then said.
Mr Heng then said that one major thrust would be improving community care, adding that another key area would be preventive care to encourage Singaporeans to adopt healthy living.
"All this means that government expenditure on healthcare will continue to rise and there are some numbers that we are quite certain will rise over the next three to five years quite sharply," he added.
The minister then spoke about the need to redesign work processes and jobs for the healthcare industry or the economy at large.
He said, "When our workforce growth is also slowing, being able to re-engineer processes, use technology... so that the whole value chain can be much better done, (this) is going to be important," pointing to the use of technology to boost productivity at the two hospitals.
Mr Heng then said that the two hospitals have also enhanced the skills of their workers while improving their operations, such as robot porters deliver patients’ case notes or fragile items to recipients at Changi General Hospital’s main building and integrated building round the clock, and battery-operated vehicles transport various containers such as food and linen trolleys.
He also mentioned newer innovations include using thermal imaging technology, which was developed by Singapore start-up Kronikare, to assess and care for patients with chronic wounds.
Nurses at St Andrew’s Community Hospital use a smartphone retrofitted with a thermal camera to take pictures of wounds. An application in the phone uses artificial intelligence to document and analyse the wound, and to record details such as its depth, tissue composition and temperature of the affected area, which is more accurate and takes as much as 30 minutes less compared to the time when it is being done by a nurse and also injuries located in awkward positions may require more than one nurse to tend to them.
The technology has been used on more than 130 patients and has captured more than 1,000 images since a pilot started in August. The hospital hopes to have at least 200 patients involved in the pilot, although there is no specific deadline to accomplish this.
"What I'm seeing is very encouraging, how the hospital itself is taking action, first to upgrade their operations, then to upgrade the skills of their people, and doing this is a very holistic way," the minister said after spending more than two hours at the hospitals.
Editor's note - As Chris Kuan has mentioned, what the Finance Minister is saying is nothing new. Former Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had earlier in 2014, raised the point that Singapore has to look at increasing its revenue to meet growing expenditure for healthcare costs.