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Singapore bets on tech to solve health care labor squeeze

SINGAPORE -- Singapore is facing the gloomy prospect of a rapidly aging population, combined with an acute shortage of health care workers. The city-state's answer to the challenge is home care.

     The government is leading an effort to develop a practical system of home-based health care. A public hospital and a university have teamed up to create a research institute whose principal mission is to develop technology for home health care. The push also offers business opportunities to the private sector.

To your health

In September, public hospital operator National Healthcare Group; the Agency for Science, Technology and Research; and Nanyang Technological University opened the Rehabilitation Research Institute of Singapore. It will spend about 100 million Singapore dollars ($78.6 million) on research projects for stroke and neurological rehabilitation, clinical robotics, biomechanics and computer games aimed at helping patients recover. 

     Cooperation between hospitals and private-sector companies is growing as well. Royal Philips, the Dutch electronics and medical equipment maker, has joined forces with local partners, including Changi General Hospital, to open a facility in 2016 devoted to telemedicine, which allows doctors and patients to interact at a distance.

     The government hopes to address a labor shortage by establishing a home health care system. Getting the basics right is important. Changi General treats many patients with heart disease but around 40% are readmitted within one year, mainly because they fail to stay on their medications and manage their diet properly.

Help wanted

The lack of health care workers is mostly due to demographics. Singapore is aging rapidly, with people aged 65 and older comprising 10.2% of the population in 2013, an increase of 4 percentage points in 20 years. The share of elderly is lower in Singapore than in Japan, but much higher than its neighbors. In Malaysia, seniors make up 5.4% of the total population. In Indonesia the share is 5.2%, in the Philippines it is 3.9%.

     Singapore imports many health workers from neighboring countries. At some hospitals, foreign nurses make up around half the staff. But the government is tightening restrictions on foreign workers, adding to the labor crunch in the health care sector.

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