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This doc keeps healthcare ops in tip-top shape

Dr Kelvin Loh moved from seeing patients to healthcare administration as he wanted to improve the efficiency of hospitals on a systems-wide basis. His role now involves overseeing all of Parkway Pantai's Singapore operations, including hospitals, Par
Dr Kelvin Loh moved from seeing patients to healthcare administration as he wanted to improve the efficiency of hospitals on a systems-wide basis. His role now involves overseeing all of Parkway Pantai's Singapore operations, including hospitals, Parkway Shenton clinics and ancillary health units.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

CEO of Parkway Pantai's S'pore operations built career improving processes in hospitals

Treating a sick patient and running a big hospital require completely different skills but are alike in at least one way - small details matter.

And no detail is too insignificant for Dr Kelvin Loh, who started his working life learning about the mechanics of the human body, but has built a career on fine-tuning the inner workings of hospitals.

Dr Loh, who became chief executive of Parkway Pantai's Singapore operations division in January, said he made the transition from seeing patients to healthcare administration because of a desire to make things more efficient.

"As a patient coming to a hospital, what do you really want? Do you want a larger TV, a larger sofa? That's not what you're looking for," said Dr Loh, 43, in his first interview since taking over as chief executive.

"Those are the results of not taking away the patient's waiting time. Patients really just want to get better quickly, without mistakes."

PROVIDING HELP IN ADVANCE

We don't want to think of patients in an episodic way. When the patient is not even a patient yet, we want to reach out to him and do simple things like lifestyle assessments, to help people reduce the chance of having a chronic illness.

DR KELVIN LOH, on how "the future of healthcare is a hospital without walls", which means reaching out to people even when they are well.

This is no mean feat at a fast-growing healthcare group.

Revenue at Parkway Pantai - a unit of hospital operator IHH Healthcare - rose to RM1.54 billion (S$495 million) for the three months to Sept 30, up 20 per cent compared with the corresponding period a year ago, according to financial results released last week.

The group's Singapore operations, which Dr Loh oversees, make up more than half of its revenue.

Inpatient admissions at Parkway Pantai's Singapore hospitals rose 13.6 per cent in the quarter, driven by an increase in local patients.

Dr Loh took on his first role as an administrator in 2001 at a public hospital after four years of practising medicine. "It was meaningful to impact patients on a one-on-one basis, but I also began to realise that as a doctor it's difficult to make changes on a systems-wide basis," he said.

"I wondered if patients could get diagnosis and treatment faster."

Patients visiting a hospital typically end up speaking to healthcare professionals and answering the same questions over and over, Dr Loh noted. They might get a diagnosis only the following day when they are finally seen by a consultant.

Dr Loh set out to see how he could change this.

After spending some time in the public sector, he joined Parkway Pantai in 2009 as chief executive of Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

He continued to spend a lot of time in wards - no longer tending to patients, but making observations and taking notes.

"The whole idea is to find ways to engineer processes for the least possible waste," he said.

This meant making sure the hospital functioned as efficiently as possible. "Anything that requires a patient to move around the hospital a lot just to do one thing is waste," said Dr Loh. "If a patient is sitting around in a waiting room, that also counts as waste. If a nurse has to spend time looking for things, that's also waste."

He offered examples of small, simple tweaks that illustrate this "lean thinking" approach in action.

For instance, to save nurses' time, trolleys with commonly used items like wound dressing equipment were set up near patients' beds at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

They were previously stored in the ward's central storeroom, meaning nurses frequently had to walk back and forth to retrieve them.

These tweaks have yielded results - 95 per cent of patients at Parkway hospitals get to see their doctor and receive a diagnosis within the same day, said Dr Loh. Treatment is usually done the following day.

In 2014, Dr Loh was made senior vice-president of Parkway Hospitals Singapore, putting him in charge of all of Parkway's hospitals in Singapore: Mount Elizabeth, Mount Elizabeth Novena, Gleneagles and Parkway East.

This meant that after spending years bustling around hospitals, Dr Loh had to adapt to working behind a desk at Parkway's offices in TripleOne Somerset. His role now involves overseeing all of Parkway Pantai's operations in Singapore, including hospitals, Parkway Shenton clinics and ancillary health units.

"It has been a bit of an out-of- body experience for me...to work in a corporate office. In the hospital there's always a lot of activity," he said. "Not that there's nothing going on here, but the atmosphere is very different."

Dr Loh took on his new role at an opportune time - the healthcare sector faces strong long-term growth prospects, amid an ageing population and the rising incidence of chronic illnesses.

In view of these trends, "the future of healthcare is a hospital without walls", said Dr Loh.

This means reaching out to people even when they are well.

"We don't want to think of patients in an episodic way. When the patient is not even a patient yet, we want to reach out to him and do simple things like lifestyle assessments, to help people reduce the chance of having a chronic illness."

Dr Loh would once have had a direct hand in this process as a doctor, but after moving into administration he had to get used to having a more arms-length influence on a patient's well-being.

This change was initially "unnerving" for a doctor who had spent many years in clinical training. "It wasn't easy, but it's been enjoyable and I haven't looked back."

The father of a five-year-old son also tries his best to strike a balance between a busy work schedule and time with family. "We're in the 'golden years' before he starts school, so I'm trying to spend more time with (my son)."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'This doc keeps healthcare ops in tip-top shape '. Print Edition | Subscribe