Can 'health' be the new wealth for Singapore?

The year has opened with turbulence and uncertainty. Manufacturing, a key pillar of the Singapore economy, saw its output in 2015 fall by 5.2 per cent while stocks in the financial sector have endured an even more painful beating.

The Straits Times Index has lost over 6 per cent of its value these last two months alone. Even as these dark clouds gather, senior political and business leaders have also been gathering, to debate Singapore's "Future Economy".

The Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), helmed by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, has been tasked with charting Singapore's economic future, identifying "future growth industries and markets" and helping local companies succeed in these areas. Which stones have not been turned over yet? Where are the hidden gems Singapore has not identified or polished for maximum shine?

THE CASE FOR HEALTH AND HEALTHCARE

People will always want better health and need healthcare, and as the middle class swells, health and healthcare spending can only go up. "But that's mostly domestic consumption," detractors will say, and aren't we worried about increasing healthcare spending?

Let's take a closer look at the 10 largest American healthcare companies on the Fortune 50 list. Leading the charge at No. 10 is CVS Health, a retailer of prescription medicines and pharmacy benefits manager. Next on the list is McKesson, the largest US pharmaceutical distributor which operates in many other countries, including Canada, Mexico and Germany. Also on the list are three insurers, four other medical products distributors and a manufacturer.

The point: Not a single healthcare provider! Healthcare is much more than doctors and hospitals; in fact, the biggest American healthcare companies deal with procurement, supply chain management, financial products for health and data analytics.

Take a few steps back and ask what matters in healthcare. "Trust", "Quality", "Reliability" and "Integrity" would come to mind - the same words that Singapore as a country would evoke.
Take a few steps back and ask what matters in healthcare. "Trust", "Quality", "Reliability" and "Integrity" would come to mind - the same words that Singapore as a country would evoke. ST FILE PHOTO

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR SINGAPORE?

Simply put, there are tremendous opportunities for Singapore without being overly concerned about healthcare "consumption" over-burdening the economy. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in launching the Smart Nation initiative, singled out healthcare as a key strategic focus while the CFE has emphasised technology and innovation.

In health and healthcare, this could mean inventing not just novel hardware and software but entire integrated systems to enable people to live well, embrace healthy eating habits and exercise regularly.

The world probably doesn't need another wearable device to track one's heart rate or steps walked, but the world does need evidence- based, data-driven solutions to help us live healthier, with appropriate "nudges" along the way as needed.

But what works and what doesn't? In this era of "precision medicine", we know that certain medicines and treatments work for some patients and not others. How can doctors predict with high likelihood which patients will benefit and so allow health systems to get the most bang for the buck?

Singaporeans' identity card numbers are used ubiquitously in education, healthcare, social services and work (and even in death!). Combining all these data points offers a unique opportunity to truly understand human health and behaviour.

Add in genetic information and Singapore will be unparalleled as the "place to be" in this space - the "Silicon Valley of Life", so to speak.

We already have some of the world's smartest scientists and innovators in universities and industries. Let's provide them with the raw material, the data, to create powerful tools to better humankind.

How valuable is this data? Well, last month, IBM announced it was acquiring Truven Health, a 2,500-employee health data analytics company, for US$2.6 billion (S$3.7 billion). The value of Truven? Data and insights from the "200 million lives" Truven provides analysis for.

Singapore can do much more than churn interesting insights. As a "Living Lab" for innovation, Singapore can integrate insights with hardware, software, policy changes and financing reforms to establish leading programmes to allow populations to "add health to years and years to health".

These programmes would make virtue out of necessity, enabling Singapore to address its own demographic challenges and at the same time delivering exactly what the world desperately needs and will buy.

Could a hub in Singapore continually analyse data from hundreds of millions of individuals all over the world and generate insights to improve health and well-being? Yes, and this would create many high-quality jobs domestically. Could the "Singapore model" spin off opportunities in data analytics, conferences, policy summits, health technology innovation and even leadership development?

Yes, Singapore has done that with "water", with the Singapore International Water Week now "the global platform to share and co-create innovative water solutions". Singapore can do likewise in health.

Take a few steps back and ask what matters in healthcare. "Trust", "Quality", "Reliability" and "Integrity" would come to mind - the same words that Singapore as a country would evoke.

There aren't too many options for new growth industries which play to Singapore's inherent strengths. Singapore has an opportunity to become a world leader in health and healthcare; it needs to seize it.

  • The writer is Partner and Head of Health & Life Sciences, Asia-Pacific of management consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2016, with the headline 'Can 'health' be the new wealth for Singapore?'. Print Edition | Subscribe