Employee welfare key to improving population health: Ong Ye Kung

EuroCham Singapore president Frederico Donato and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung at the launch of EuroCham's Whitebook On The Future Of Healthcare And Wellbeing. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Enhancing the welfare of employees is one key way in which companies can work with the Government to improve the health of the nation, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Monday (May 30).

Businesses can also play an important role in the areas of producing healthier food and developing digital solutions that enhance preventive care, he added.

Mr Ong was speaking at the launch of the European Chamber of Commerce's (EuroCham) Whitebook On The Future Of Healthcare And Wellbeing, held at the Grand Hyatt Singapore hotel on Monday.

The book outlines the steps needed over the next few years for a more sustainable future for the health and well-being of Singapore.

Mr Ong said the book was a "most timely publication", as it comes after the Ministry of Health's (MOH) announcement of a major reform of Singapore's healthcare system, known as HealthierSG.

The HealthierSG initiative involves a shift in national focus towards preventive care.

Mr Ong said that unlike acute care, preventive care needs to be a sustained effort, and if done early enough, can be easy, affordable and even enjoyable.

It also takes place at home, and among friends and companions, he said.

"Because of these differences, patients have become consumers and vice versa when it comes to preventive care.

"I therefore believe preventive care opens up far more opportunities for innovation and participation by enterprises and industries, and we have a great opportunity to build a strong public-private-people partnership for health," said Mr Ong.

He highlighted three areas that companies can participate in.

First, enhancing the welfare of employees. Noting that a healthier workforce is more productive, Mr Ong said the workplace is a very important part of people's social circles, and a natural touchpoint to encourage people to change their habits.

He added that MOH has worked with companies over the years to put in place various workplace wellness programmes, but that some of these had been disrupted because of the pandemic.

"With employees now returning to workplaces, I hope companies will double down on reintroducing many of these programmes for self-care, fitness and wellness," he said, adding that he hoped companies would encourage employees to enrol in the HealthierSG programme when it is rolled out next year.

Second, the area of food. Mr Ong noted that some people have the wrong perception that healthy food needs to be expensive or unenjoyable.

"All these are wrong. The best food intervention for the majority of us, and in Singapore particularly, is to simply cut down salt, sugar and oil. And by doing so, you can avoid serious chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, heart diseases and diabetes," he said.

So MOH will work with businesses to help people adjust their cooking and eating habits by increasing the range and variety of lower-sodium salt, sauces and seasonings.

Producers of beverages are also reformulating their drinks to cut down on sugar content, and incorporating suitable labels to guide consumers on their choices.

Mr Ong added that Singapore should also see a more affordable range of plant-based foods, which he acknowledged are currently more expensive than their non-plant-based counterparts.

But he said that he hopes prices will moderate over time as more plant-based meats make their way to local supermarkets and restaurants.

Third, developing digital solutions to enhance preventive care, by helping people regulate their exercise, sleep and so on.

Mr Ong said that exercise need not be expensive and unaffordable, requiring coaches and personal trainers.

"It is really about standing instead of sitting, taking the stairs, going for regular brisk walks or jogs or cycling trips, cutting back on our device time... and leading a much less sedentary lifestyle," he said, adding that the biggest determinant of exercise is personal initiative and discipline.

Noting that Singapore's National Steps Challenge had been a success because it was enabled by technology, Mr Ong said there has recently been an "explosion" of digital apps to enhance preventive care.

Some companies have also developed digital solutions to remotely monitor patients, including a sensor placed under the skin of diabetic patients to monitor their glucose levels.

"If we can incorporate all these innovations with an overarching national preventive care and promotional effort, we can make great strides in enhancing population health," he said.

Emphasising the importance of EuroCham as a stakeholder and partner of Singapore, he said: "I look forward to forging an even stronger partnership with you on HealthierSG."

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