The Straits Times says

Value of pooling healthcare data

It is unfortunate that only 3 per cent of more than 4,000 private healthcare providers - including specialist clinics, nursing homes and hospices - contribute to the National Electronic Health Record system. This poor rate of contribution is tarnished further by the fact that a quarter of these providers have access to the scheme and can view patient records. Given that the national database was launched in 2011, there is no excuse for the tardiness. Public hospitals and polyclinics have been conscientious in contributing to the scheme, but their enthusiasm will not create a seamless network of data unless private healthcare providers fill in the gap. Hence, there is merit in the Ministry of Health's intention to make it compulsory for all providers to upload data to the health database, from large hospitals to neighbourhood private clinics.

Family doctors should not be holdouts in the medical sector's journey on the digital highway. They run more than 1,600 private clinics, including solo practices and chains, and are often the first point of medical contact for many who fall ill. Some practitioners believe that the personal touch might suffer if patients find doctors staring at computers and keying in information during consultations. Making up for some loss of eye contact with those being served is a skill that will become habitual before becoming unremarkable. As for costs, healthcare groups can tap a $20 million fund to offset the cost of upgrading their systems. Doctors, whose incomes are generally high, should not find it deterring to invest in participation in the national electronic infrastructure. The cost must not be simply passed on to patients.

Common access to a person's medical history would help both the public and private sectors to provide proper treatment. Patients would save time and money by avoiding medical tests that may be ordered otherwise, since their current doctor would have immediate access to relevant records. This would be a boon in an emergency, telling the doctor what medication the patient is taking, which could influence treatment. A centralised record system should be viewed as an essential evolution of healthcare services. It is in keeping with the use of technology to make Singapore a smart nation. That is a tool that must be tapped to overcome manpower shortages in the sector, especially when patient numbers mushroom as a result of an ageing population.

Privacy is an important consideration, which is covered by the Personal Data Protection Act. Unauthorised access to or wrongful use of information stored on a single system could affect an individual, of course. That calls for robust guidelines to ensure that mischief is prevented, and heavy penalties to deter any form of misconduct. Like the risk of systemic failure, privacy protection should also be adequately safeguarded.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2017, with the headline 'Value of pooling healthcare data'. Subscribe