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09 Jan 2024

22nd Dec 2023

My Parliamentary colleagues, Dr Lim Wee Kiak, Ms Poh Li San and Ms Hany Soh


Ms Jennie Chua, Chairman, Woodlands Health Campus Development Committee


Dr Jason Cheah, CEO, Woodlands Health


Board members, management, colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen


Reflecting on 2023


1.             I will say that 2023 has been a good year for health. It is a good time to reflect and I think we did a lot as a team, a community, and a healthcare system over the year. In terms of policies, first, we rolled out Healthier SG this year. Over 600,000 people have enrolled and over 90% of General Practitioners (GPs) are participating in it. I think it has generated a very healthy momentum.


2.             Second, we rolled out Age Well SG. This complements Healthier SG because for seniors, Healthier SG is not enough, and we need to take the extra mile to encourage them to step out of their home to be socially active. A lot of things are happening on the ground, and Age Well SG is underway.


3.             All these programmes can only succeed provided there is – and this is the third thing –  community support. All around the communities, there are now a lot more healthy activities, and better and healthier food is being served. I think there is something going on in our community and society now. People are asking for less sugar, and we are having more regulations by the end of this year when freshly prepared beverages will also be Nutri-Grade labelled, whether they are A, B, C or D. We are also pushing for less sodium and salt. I can see more chefs, hawker stalls and merchants trying to cut back on salt. I think we are getting into a good momentum here as well.


4.             On the medications side, we rolled out a difficult and complex policy this year, which is the Cancer Drug List (CDL). The long and short of it is we now subsidise more cancer drugs, with good coverage in insurance, provided that they are cost-effective. As a result, today we have more and more drugs with reduced prices and that really helps our patients in terms of affordability. At the same time, more and more drugs are registered onto the CDL. We now have a list of medications that is longer than it was before CDL was implemented. We are doing the same thing now for medical devices. There is now a medical implants and devices list, which is also subject to more subsidy and more affordable to our patients. There are also very encouraging progress and advancements in medical science, particularly precision medicine and research.


COVID-19 situation


5.             Next, on COVID-19. In February this year, we came out of the COVID-19 pandemic officially and entered DORSCON Green. Post-COVID, patient loads have increased everywhere around the world. Older people are becoming more sick. I think during the three years of the pandemic, their health probably deteriorated. It is not just us but everywhere in the world. We all suffer from long COVID-19 as a healthcare system.


6.             Post-COVID, the hospitals are getting a lot busier. COVID never really goes away. It is endemic, which means we will have to live with it. We had three waves this year. The first wave happened at the beginning of the year. The second wave happened in October, and was dominated by two variants HK.3 and EG.5. Before that wave subsided, a new wave was stacked on it, which was driven by another variant called JN.1.


7.             In recent days, we have been reporting very high estimated infection numbers, but probably the actual numbers are much higher. The indications are that we have plateaued. For the past few days, the estimated infection numbers have come down so I think we have plateaued. However, we are coming to Christmas and New Year with lots of celebrations, family dinners and parties. We might have a slight surge, but more or less we are seeing the peak of this wave.


8.             All in all, about 600 of our hospital beds are taken up by COVID-19 patients. About 10 to 20 ICU beds are taken, which is not high. For hospital beds, 600 or 700 hospital beds are quite a drain on our system which is a 10,000-bed strong system. To take up 600, 700 beds, at 6% or 7%, is not small. It is a significant workload on our healthcare workers and system. Nevertheless, I think our assessment remains that we can wear through this. We can withstand this.


9.             There have been many members of the public who have written to me to say that many of their friends have been infected with COVID-19 and it is time to change the rules and impose mandatory mask wearing, especially on public transport. I have always assured people that in Singapore, when we have to implement a measure, we will do so if it is necessary. But for this wave, where we are now, based on the impact and the burden on our healthcare system, I think we can withstand this without additional safe management measures.


10.          But we appeal to everyone: when you are sick, wear a mask and stay at home. If you have to come into contact with someone, wear a mask. Very importantly, continue to take your vaccinations once a year, especially if you are a senior or if you have underlying illnesses and are vulnerable. Whatever vaccine you have taken will wear off in about one to one-and-a half years. It is important you get it renewed because your antidote does not last forever.


11.          To help with vaccinations, I think we need a new strategy.  We have been relying on Joint Testing and Vaccination Centres (JTVC). There are eight or nine around the island and gradually we are reducing to maybe five sometime next year. But I think at this stage, when people feel that COVID-19 is endemic and is part and parcel of life, not many people would want to purposely go to a big centre to get themselves vaccinated.


12.          I think we need to rely on the GPs. Today, we have a couple hundred of GPs who administer COVID vaccinations. We have to work hard to increase that number and then put it as part of Healthier SG so that we roll it out very actively to as many seniors as we can, to get our vaccinations up. Next year, if we have another wave and we will, we will be much more prepared.


13.          I should make one more point about COVID, which is that we have finally completed a very long process of awarding all our COVID heroes. As you know, this is a crisis of a generation. It is a concerted national effort because so many people were involved. We have conferred recognition and awards to over 110,000 people, many of whom are healthcare workers. All of them are heroes who have worked together to help us overcome this crisis.


14.          Unfortunately, we hear of news that people are selling their medals. I think it is a very small minority. I will say this: It is wrong to sell your medals. It is with great appreciation and respect that we selected the names and conferred the medals on these deserving people. Therefore we hope too, that you reciprocate the respect and cherish the medal and the recognition. There are others who wrote in too. Some are individual doctors or nurses who wrote in to say that I have contributed but somehow, I was left out. We will look into these cases. As you know, we try to be as inclusive as possible in recognising this national effort and everyone involved in this national effort. Over 110,000 recipients – that is how inclusive we have been.


15.          We had a nomination process. We had an appeal process and one appeal after another, trying to include as many as possible. It is possible that we missed out some and if we do, that exercise is over but we will try our best to make it up as much as possible. There is however one anonymous group who apparently are doctors in isolation wards. They have claimed that they have also been missed out. But they are anonymous so I do invite them to please give us your names and the hospital you worked in, and we will certainly look at your cases objectively.


16.          On manpower, we set out this year to recruit 4,000 healthcare workers, nurses in particular - 3,000 for the public sector and 1,000 for the private sector. It is important because we are expanding our facilities and healthcare capacity, and we need manpower to be able to operate them. It also makes up for the nurses that we lost during the pandemic due to international competition. I would say the number needs time to finalise, but I am very confident that we will exceed our target this year of 4,000 nurses. It is a very good encouraging sign that shows that Singapore is a place where people are willing to join healthcare and foreign nurses are also willing to work in Singapore, working side by side with our local nurses. We will continue this effort and not back down.


17.          And finally, we are doing a lot more to expand our capacity. This year we opened two new polyclinics, one in Tampines North and one here in Sembawang. Next year, there will be more. All in all, by 2030, we hope to have more than 30 polyclinics. Hospitals take a longer time to build but painstakingly, after a lot of the hard work, we are seeing the first signs of expanding capacity and it starts here in the Woodlands Health Campus.


Woodlands Health


18.          Today what we are opening is after many years of hard work. What we are opening today is a small part of the hospital - 40 beds which are two community hospital wards, some specialist services as well as a therapeutic garden, thanks to National Parks Board (NParks).


19.          The big opening is sometime in the middle of next year and we hope to see 1,000 beds open, as well as the A&E and almost a full hospital operating at full throttle. We will have a bigger celebration and opening at that time. I should make a special mention of all the staff. We have about 3,000 staff on this campus. During the time when we are building this campus, they are nested at other hospitals, such as Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. 600 of you are now transferred here.


20.          Not all 3,000 are coming to this campus all at one go. With the phased opening of this campus, they will be transferred here gradually. For the other hospitals nesting and hosting them, they will make preparations so that they do not have a sudden shock, a sudden loss of staff. Then with the right sizing of capacity and the right sizing of staff, I believe we will be much better positioned to serve the needs and the demands of our patients.


21.          Last but not least, there are many people who have worked very hard to get this campus up. I want to thank the board and management of Woodlands Health Campus. I also want to thank the contractors. I know it is not an easy project. We should thank all the staff who are nested elsewhere and now transferred here. All consultants, architects, designers and IT teams that are behind the operation of this campus, thank you for all your effort. It has not been easy.


22.          I should mention this will be the first hospital in Singapore where the three most complex and important mission critical IT systems will be operating in this hospital. These are the electronic medical record system, the system for dispensing pharmaceutical products and medicines, and finally the billing system. All three systems will be working in concert here. How they operate here will determine how we will operate in the rest of Singapore.


23.        And finally thank you NParks for being part and parcel of this building. To the residents, thank you all for your patience. I am sure that you will benefit greatly from this wonderful facility. Last but not least, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.

Category: Speeches Highlights