Revitalised NKF ready to come out of 'tortoise shell'

NKF's new 20-episode Channel 8 serial will feature homegrown artists Rui En (above), Dasmond Koh and Pierre Png. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
NKF's new 20-episode Channel 8 serial will feature homegrown artists Rui En (above), Dasmond Koh and Pierre Png. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

It will spread healthy lifestyle message with a TV serial starring Rui En as kidney patient

After nearly 10 years of self-imposed exile away from the television lights, the revitalised National Kidney Foundation (NKF) is ready to step back into the limelight.

With rising demand for its service, in March next year, the organisation will be launching a 20-episode Channel 8 serial featuring Rui En, Dasmond Koh and Pierre Png.

This is a different approach to the glitzy television fund-raisers of the past, chairman Koh Poh Tiong told The Sunday Times in a recent interview.

Its aim is to promote a healthy lifestyle, with Rui En playing a kidney failure patient who picks herself up.

This public education focus is part of a revamped NKF, which has for the past decade "deliberately adopted a lower profile", said Mr Koh.

"NKF was like a tortoise climbing into its shell after the controversy... We focused on the nitty- gritty work of providing good dialysis care."

The NKF was embroiled in a scandal in 2005 when it was revealed that then chief executive T. T. Durai lived a lavish lifestyle using funds raised by the charity.

The controversy took a heavy toll: Annual donations plummeted from $73 million in 2004 to $21 million in the past year.

In 2005, a series of three shows could raise as much as $28 million. The last shows were held that year, at a cost of $4 million to $5 million.

The number of individual donors has also fallen 46 per cent from about 280,000 a year to about 152,000.

Since then, the NKF has restructured, with better corporate governance. It now has 12 sub-committees in areas such as human resources and audit with staffing levels kept lean.

The marketing team, which used to be more than 100, is now fewer than 10. Most of its 700 staff today are in nursing or direct patient care.

At the same time, the number of patients has burgeoned by 83 per cent, from 1,800 in 2004 to 3,300 today.

Why is the tortoise sticking its head out now?

The turning point, said Mr Koh, was a gala dinner which NKF held in April for its 45th anniversary.

"When management proposed we should have a big event, I was a concerned whether the event would get support," he said.

"A lot of people have given up supporting the NKF... But we were pleasantly surprised that we were able to raise $11.3 million."

Of this, $10 million is being used to build five new dialysis centres.

"Now the tortoise is going to put four legs out and walk, to see how we can further help our patients... without being burdened by the past," said Mr Koh.

Another factor prompting NKF to return to the public eye is the extent of the health risk out there. With current rates of kidney failure, the NKF expects to be treating 3,800 patients by 2017.

A majority of patients' kidneys have failed as a result of their lifestyles - many suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes - and the NKF hopes to spread the message of a healthy lifestyle.

Hence the TV serial, and an education fund of $10 million which it will use to spread health messages. Part of the funding went towards an educational bus it launched last month.

"I don't think we can just be a dialysis operator. Our hope is to have a kidney institute in Singapore - like the National Heart Centre Singapore and Singapore National Eye Centre - where we can coordinate research and the training of nurses."

NKF is discussing the idea with the authorities.

Still, operating costs are spiralling as its patients age: It cost about $70 million last year to look after its patients. With the new dialysis centres scheduled to come on stream, the figure is expected to hit $100 million soon.

It costs the organisation about $2,000 monthly to treat each patient. In all, 40 per cent of its patients are treated for free, 20 per cent pay $50 or less monthly, and the remaining 40 per cent pay what they can afford.

Together, NKF has been making do - with a combination of donations, income from the five floors it rents out in its Kim Keat building, government contributions, and what patients pay.

Mr Koh says he hopes people will recognise that this is a "new NKF".

NKF is even going to get external auditors to sign off, every year end, verifying that these donations have gone to the patients. This will be reflected in its annual report, set to come out at the end of this year.

"People ask me, why am I so involved? Because the sick cannot help the sick and the poor cannot help the poor. We as a society must do it... I hope Singaporeans will not only help NKF but all the charities in general," said Mr Koh.

"I hope they will look beyond us and at the patients, and walk with us."

wrennie@sh.com.sg