The Straits Times

Patients first in national record system

The private sector's tardiness in joining the National Electronic Health Records system, in place since 2013, reflects poorly on health professionals. The database is an important means to improve patient care. It will give private doctors access to vital patient information so they can ensure treatment is appropriate and timely. It will also enable citizens to access their health records on their smartphones, empowering them to take charge of their health. And it will provide researchers with the data they need to pinpoint better and more cost-effective treatments.

One might wonder if general practitioners and private hospitals are dragging their feet over joining the national system because they fear that doing so will make it easier for their patients to switch to other healthcare providers. Their patients' interests should rank supreme, of course.

From the bottom-line perspective, it would be short-sighted for doctors in the private sector to avoid going digital as the future of healthcare is tied to it. The Health Ministry has mapped out an ambitious IT Masterplan aimed at linking up patients, doctors and healthcare providers in a vast electronic database by 2021. Those who fail to get on board may well find themselves losing relevance.

The Government has a $2 million fund to help the charity sector, which runs community hospitals and nursing homes, to digitise and get onto the national system. However, profit-oriented private sector players should seek ways of helping themselves by pooling resources, for example.

Practitioners might worry about the impact of shared electronic records on patient privacy and confidentiality. These are valid concerns. Patients can already opt out of the system. Should they change their minds later, they can opt back in. As for potential abuse of data by insurers and employers, that is best dealt with through regulation. Private sector healthcare providers should work with the authorities to hammer out a set of rules to deter misuse of health records, rather than cite these pitfalls as an excuse for inaction.

At the end of the day, patients' needs must come first and that means making full use of technology to better serve them. The need for an electronic database is all the more urgent given the rapid pace at which Singapore society is ageing. The elderly are more likely to suffer from more than one ailment and a shared database will help doctors better coordinate their care. It will also make it easier for doctors to monitor the condition of patients with complex chronic ailments in their homes, and to intervene quickly if needed so that patients do not end up in hospital.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'Patients first in national record system'. Print Edition | Subscribe