Kenny Chen, Consultant at Odgers Berndtson Singapore, talks to Zee Yoong Kang, CEO of Singapore’s Health Promotion Board about the predicted crisis of chronic diseases, and what Singapore’s preventative healthcare programmes are doing about it today.

Singapore is the number-one choice for multinationals’ APAC headquarters, with 4,200 firms located in the country.

Although rising affluence has brought many benefits to Singapore, it has been accompanied by the spread of so-called ‘lifestyle diseases’, such as diabetes.

No fewer than 16% of patients in Singaporean hospitals are expected to be suffering from the disease by the year 2040. It’s a crisis that is being tackled by the Singaporean government through, among other initiatives, preventative healthcare.

Economic burden

In 2016, Singapore’s Health Minister declared: “A Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health study estimated the total economic burden of diabetes for working-age adults at more than a billion dollars a year.” 

Singapore is certainly not standing idle while this crisis grows. Established in 2001, the Singapore Health Promotion Board (HPB) is committed to promoting healthy living in Singapore.

It is at the forefront of fighting the onset of chronic diseases, by collaborating with companies and food manufacturers and encouraging people to live healthier lifestyles.

Zee Yoong Kang, CEO of HPB, says that his agency’s mandate is “to encourage Singaporeans to live more healthily through diet and physical activities”.

“Like most countries over the last 30 years,” adds Zee, “Singapore has followed the model of building a healthcare system of specialists to treat acute diseases. However, with greater affluence and an ageing population, chronic disease management will be the healthcare challenge of the future. Singapore is facing it earlier because of our greying population, but I believe all countries will face the same issue over the next 10 to 20 years.”

 

Prevention before cure

Zee says that Singapore’s healthcare system needs to evolve in two specific ways. The first is a shift to a greater focus on prevention with early detection and promoting a healthy lifestyle. The second is creating care teams to manage people’s health within their communities.

When it comes to encouraging businesses to help their employees live healthier lives and manage chronic diseases more effectively, Zee is unequivocal.

“Healthy living is not something you can foster by holding talks. We realized that people change their behavior when you change the culture and environment around them. This can range from providing a healthier diet to leaders being role models for healthy living and managing their staff’s workload to prevent burnout.

“We emphasize to employers that this is important for their bottom line. As society ages, it will be more difficult to hire staff, so companies need to retain current staff by encouraging healthy living and lessen the impact of early retirement due to chronic diseases.”

Creative steps

Zee says that he is impressed by the way in which some companies in the APAC region have been implementing a creative way of encouraging healthy living.

He adds: “We have partnered with many companies in pushing healthy lifestyles. For example, Seagate Technology International, the US data storage company, distributed steps trackers to its staff for the corporate leg of our National Steps Challenge.

“Its managers led the initiative to actively encourage their staff to run and walk. As a result, employees took an average of 21,000 steps, which is the equivalent of walking 15-16km per day. So it requires on-the-ground leadership by senior management to mobilize the entire workforce to change the way they live.”

Hidden impact

The likely effect of this healthcare crisis on the workplace and lost productivity is plain, as Zee confirms.

“There’s a huge hidden impact on the workplace. Managers tend to focus on the wrong things. I personally sit on the Workplace Safety and Health Council of Singapore, and we realized that the focus among employers is typically on accidents and deaths.

“But there’s a bigger hidden problem of early retirement. People are forced to stop working as they are physically unable to work due to chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes. The statistics don’t capture that but the truth is we are losing people to early retirement. So we are working with employers to tackle the problem at its root and to encourage their employees to lead healthier lifestyles for greater work longevity.”

Encouraging measures

So profound is the fear of the effect of a diabetes epidemic in Singapore that the government has declared a ‘War on Diabetes’.

Says Zee: “We have been taking a more upstream approach. Over the last few years, we have already been aggressively working with companies to offer low sugar drinks under the ‘Healthier Choice Symbol’ programme. As a result, the average sugar content in packaged drinks in Singapore fell from 9.5 percent to six percent.

“We are taking similar approaches with other food manufacturers and restaurants to introduce wholegrain products. We have been encouraging schools and government premises not to sell unhealthy foods so as to set an example to Singaporeans.

“We can genuinely say Singapore is the most aggressive country in the world in terms of actively promoting healthier foods with programmes such as the National Steps Challenge™.”

Positive numbers

Zee recognizes the difficulty in alerting the population to the health risks just by using above-the-line advertising, which is why the HPB also organizes roadshows and free exercise sessions in public spaces.

“The goal,” says Zee, “is to create a ‘street presence’ and instill a vibe among the public that living a healthy lifestyle is the norm rather than the exception. We are highly successful with this. Across these programmes, we have seen about 200,000 in attendance.”

This article is from the latest ‘Well Working’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson magazine, OBSERVE.

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Kenny Chen

Kenny Chen has more than a decade of experience in the Life Sciences industry since graduating with a Bachelor's in Biochemistry from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Starting his career in Me...

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