SINGAPORE - Singaporeans who sign up to a new national preventive healthcare programme will gain advantages through benefits such as free health screening and the use of MediSave funds to pay for chronic diseases, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung in a radio interview on Thursday.
Making a pitch for the voluntary programme, which is expected to kick off in the second half of 2023 with those aged 60 and above, he said health screening and vaccinations that are nationally recommended will be paid for by the Government.
Residents who sign up for the Healthier SG initiative will first have to enrol with a primary care doctor, who will develop a health plan and help them manage their care, said Mr Ong in the interview with DJs on radio station One FM 91.3.
"We are asking doctors to set aside capacity for that, so that you have a dedicated doctor-patient relationship with the family doctor," said Mr Ong.
"The doctor may send you for health screenings. That will be free from henceforth," he added.
"You may be sent for vaccinations, nationally recommended ones, namely, influenza, pneumococcal vaccinations, especially for seniors. That will be free."
On Wednesday, Parliament endorsed the White Paper on Healthier SG after a two-day debate.
Mr Ong said one's health plan could include losing some weight, for instance. "Usually, this is not about drug prescription any more. Once you go into preventive healthcare, I'm sure many of you know, you will go into what we call social prescription: your diet, your sleep patterns, your eating habits, your exercise habits, and a doctor should advise you," he said.
"And then we will support the doctor with all kinds of community activities that we're going to organise (and) health screening is critical."
Another important change is that residents on Healthier SG will be able to pay for the care of chronic conditions entirely from their MediSave accounts.
"Some people have chronic diseases like diabetes, so they use their MediSave to manage those diseases. Today, they have to pay 15 per cent cash as co-payment. We always say self-responsibility, we will remove that. So you can use your MediSave fully," said Mr Ong.
Other benefits of the programme include earning points on the Healthy 365 mobile app, which is used for initiatives like the National Steps Challenge.
"When it comes to preventive care, the most important factor is ourselves: what we intend to do differently from before," said Mr Ong, even as he acknowledged the challenges of making changes.
"When I came to MOH (Ministry of Health), then, as I interacted with the folks from the hospitals, from HPB or Health Promotion Board, I found our advice to people to stay healthy is a bit too austere," he said.
"You tell us to be healthy, you cannot eat, no sugar, no salt, everything bland, who would want to lead that kind of life in Singapore, right? So I think it's much better to say we can enjoy our food but in moderation."
"I mean, what's wrong with eating chwee kueh (rice cakes topped with preserved radish) for breakfast, right?" he quipped.
"If you have that in the morning, you can go a bit lighter on the food at lunch, and at night, you can still have your alcohol, like a glass of wine."
Mr Ong said his weakness is watching what he eats but he limits his alcohol to a moderate intake on weekends. He also does pilates or stretching exercises every morning because of a previous back injury.
Asked if Singapore would consider giving mental health days off, he said: "My own sense is that what's more important now is to have flexibility. (Flexible) work arrangements are probably more important because it's always that one hour you need to just run off in the afternoon, get something done for your parents, for the children, or that two hours off, and at night, you work anywhere."
Mental health is an area where the focus should also be more on prevention than on the remedial action, which can be too late sometimes.
"So for mental health, one of the simplest preventive actions is actually not your leave, it's just sleeping enough, letting your brain have a chance to rest and repair itself every night," said Mr Ong.
DJ Glenn Ong asked if Singapore was moving towards the direction of free medical care. In response, Mr Ong said this could not be done.
"Once you make something free, the demand just shoots up and you will get over-prescriptions, you've got people demanding healthcare (when they don't quite need it). Preventive care takes a backseat since curative care is free," he said.
This is why co-payment is always a central feature in the Singapore system, although the Government is now making a small break in its policy for preventive care such as health screenings and vaccinations.
"We make it free because prevention, I think, is important," said Mr Ong.