SINGAPORE: One of the important takeaways from the two-day global conference on diabetes that Singapore hosted this week is that the city’s approach to tackling the epidemic is “generally in the right direction”, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said on Tuesday (Nov 27).
Speaking to reporters at the end of the Ministerial Conference on Diabetes at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, Mr Gan also said that the war against diabetes is winnable, provided stakeholders work together to prevent and manage the disease.
The conference was attended by health ministers, senior government officials, academics and thought leaders from 18 countries and regions, including from Finland, the United Kingdom, Thailand, and the World Health Organisation.
“Although the challenges are great and involve many stakeholders, if we are able to rally the support, and move together among all the stakeholders across borders, collaboration among countries, I think we will be able to make headway in this war,” he said.
This is “provided that we can work together, provided that we are persistent and we are steadfast in our efforts to tackle this problem”, he said.
Singapore declared a war on diabetes in 2016. Almost half a million Singaporeans live with diabetes, higher than the global prevalence.
Mr Gan also acknowledged that the war on diabetes will be a long one, as opposed to a “quick battle”, but added that “what is important is that there is hope that we can go forward".
SUGAR TAX NOT TO COLLECT REVENUE
Turning the conversation to sugar tax, which has previously been floated as a way to discourage unhealthy behaviour, Mr Gan said that the purpose of such a tax would be to encourage manufacturers to reformulate their drinks and consumers to opt for lower-sugar drinks - instead of for revenue collection.
“If they (manufacturers) are able to reduce their sugar content, then they may be able to enjoy a lower tax rate, or not be taxable at all. There are different forms of tax structures so the idea is to really encourage manufacturers to reformulate,” Mr Gan said.
It is important for Singapore to consult and gather feedback from stakeholders, producers, consumers as well as retailers to have a sense of their concerns, and to determine if such a tax would be suitable for the country, he added.
When asked if salt- which came up as a concern in the recently released National Nutrition Survey- should also be taxed, Mr Gan said that the salt challenge is a “more complex one”.
He added, however, that many of the efforts in fighting diabetes apply to salt as well, as those who are conscious about sugar are likely to be conscious about salt as well.
MAKING LABELS WORK
One way in which Singapore is exploring to help consumers make more informed decisions about the items they consume is product labels.
“How can we label it such that there is enough information, but not too much information? If you give too much information, the consumer is unable to compare the product. You have too little information, the decision might also not be accurate,” he said.
Mr Gan gave examples of a grading system based on factors such as salt, sugar and nutrition, and a “traffic light” system, which marks green as healthy, orange as moderate and red as dangerous.
While the Government continues to work on beating diabetes, Mr Gan cautioned against focusing on short-term results, which, even if positive, may be a result of past efforts or a general shift in consumption patterns.
“The real results of the efforts in the war on diabetes are not going to be felt. It’s going to be five, 10, 15 years later, because habits are difficult to change. Even if you change habits, the outcome of your health will not be immediate,” he said.
STRENGTHENING THE PRIMARY CARE LANDSCAPE
Aside from diabetes, participants in the global conference were interested in ways to strengthen the primary care landscape, an area that Singapore is also focused on and eager to learn more about from other countries, he said.
While Singapore has a Primary Care Network (PCN) scheme that encourages general practitioner (GP) clinics to organise themselves into networks that support more holistic and team-based care, the initiative has teething problems that need to be ironed out,he said.
The PCN scheme was piloted in 2012 and scaled up in January this year.
“There are different groupings, and not all of them are operating on the same model, and there is still a need to level up their capability, to ensure that they are able to cope with the ageing population and surge in chronic disease prevalence,” he elaborated.
When it came to learning from other countries’ systems, he referred to a plan in Hong Kong to introduce district centres that oversee GPs in one area, outsourced to private operators. He said the idea is interesting, and that he would like to know what the outcome would be.
“There’s a lot more that we can do, and we need to continue to step up,” he said. However, it is not about adding measures and initiatives, he cautioned.
“The general approach is similar, but we need to tweak it, we need to adjust it to our context,” he said, adding that Singapore “cannot copy wholesale”.