SINGAPORE: A new workgroup was set up last month to improve the health of minority ethnic groups, the Ministry of Health announced on Friday (Mar 5).
The workgroup will first focus its efforts on the Malay community, before expanding to other minority ethnic groups.
Speaking in Parliament during MOH’s Committee of Supply debate, Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam said: “We see significant disparities in health behaviours and outcomes across ethnicities and will be ramping up efforts in this area.”
Last year, the proportion of Malays and Indians with diabetes was higher than that of Chinese, she said.
For cancers, the Chinese consistently have the highest age-standardised cancer incidence rates, but the proportion of Malays among all cases of cancer has gradually increased over the decades, she added.
MOH said in a fact sheet that Malays have the highest obesity rates, were more likely to be daily smokers compared to Chinese and Indians and have the lowest screening rates for chronic conditions or cancers.
"This suggests that there may be cultural differences influencing lifestyles and health behaviours,” said MOH.
Efforts will be focused on designing “culturally relevant” programmes and rallying the community against poor health habits, said MOH, adding that this will involve year-round healthy living activities.
“We want the best approach to do things. It is not an attempt to single out anyone or any group. Our objective is to make sure that we encourage health for all,” MOH said.
RATIONALE BEHIND ETHNIC FOCUS
The Health Promotion Board (HPB) said separately that over the years, the authorities have taken a “very much national approach, generally looking at health issues from the typical Singaporean’s point of view”.
“We have made much progress in that, but (we) think that the approach has certain limitations and we recognised over time that there are specific, and especially cultural differences, even market differences in the way that, for example, that people consume their food,” HPB said.
For the Malay community, HPB noted that one of the issues is the availability of healthy halal food.
“You can imagine that if you work on the large-scale commercial providers for food, you’ll hit the majority population. You’re going to ignore the availability, for example, of healthy halal alternatives for the Malay population,” HPB said.
Over the past two to three years, however, there has been “tremendous progress” in getting halal food sellers to offer healthier options, HPB noted, adding that this shows the benefit of a targeted approach for specific ethnic groups.
The workgroup will be led by Ms Rahayu and Members of Parliament Dr Wan Rizal and Ms Mariam Jaafar.
MENTAL HEALTH AND WELL-BEING
MOH on Friday also announced that a COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce set up by the ministry and the Institute of Mental Health in October last year will transit into an inter-agency platform by middle of this year. This task force will coordinate mental health and well-being strategies beyond COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased stressors on individuals, such as fear of infection and loss of employment, and a greater need for mental health and well-being support,” MOH said.
The task force was originally set up to look into the psychosocial impact of the pandemic on people, take stock of the mental health and well-being initiatives introduced across agencies to address the impact of COVID-19, and identify gaps that would need to be addressed to better meet the mental health needs of the population during this period.
Following a review of the psychosocial impact of COVID-19 on the population, the task force recommended three areas to be addressed: Developing a national mental health well-being strategy to align and guide the work of various agencies; developing a national mental health resources webpage; and establishing a national mental health competency training framework to align and standardise training curricula on mental health in the community.
The new inter-agency platform will oversee those three areas, as well as the development and implementation of mental health and well-being efforts, said MOH.
MOTHERS AND CHILDREN
MOH also announced it is developing a Child and Maternal Health and Well-being Strategy to “provide holistic and comprehensive support to women and their children to attain good health and well-being”.
“The Strategy and Action Plan span the pre-conception phase to adolescents aged 18 years old and will help to support our young achieve their maximum human development potential,” said MOH.
Mothers and children have been identified as a “key segment”, and the health of a child is “inextricably linked” to the health of the mother, MOH said.
“The impetus for this is a shift towards a more population segment approach,” said MOH.
“We decided in recent years that we need to look at (health issues) along population segments because different population segments have different needs.”
An inter-agency task force has been set up to oversee the development and implementation of the five-year Strategy and Action Plan. It is chaired by Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) Masagos Zulkifli, who is also Second Minister for Health.
Speaking about this initiative in Parliament, Mr Masagos said that international research shows that the early years of life are a critical window for development, with lasting impact on later life outcomes.
“This extends to even before the child is born, during the antenatal stage,” he said, adding that a local study found evidence that a mother’s health can directly influence her child’s development.
These findings underscore the importance of intervening early in life, to prevent disadvantages from “snowballing”, and that parents play a key role to a child’s long-term development, he said.
The task force will focus on issues that require multiple agencies to collaborate and address decisively, to achieve a common goal of better health, social and education outcomes for our young, he said.
“We will review our service delivery processes to integrate our services better, across the domains,” he said.
One of the issues the task force will tackle is enhancing upstream preventive health efforts for women and children, said MOH. This includes preparing young couples for parenthood and equipping mothers with skills and knowledge to foster good physical and emotional health for themselves and their children.
The task force includes representatives from various Government agencies such as MOH, MSF, the Education Ministry, HPB as well as the three public healthcare clusters.
The Strategy and Action Plan will be implemented in phases over the next three years. The first phase of the Action Plan is expected to be ready by early next year.