Transforming public health with data

The Precision Public Health Asia 2021 Conference (PPH Asia 2021) took place between 7 and 9 April 2021, and brought together academics, industry stakeholders, and policymakers to explore how genomics, big data, and artificial intelligence can benefit public health in the developed and developing worlds.

Organised by the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (SSHSPH), in partnership with the Government of Western Australia, Department of Health, the conference gathered more than 1,700 delegates from 38 countries. The conference consisted of six panel discussion sessions with over 25 world-renowned experts, such as Dr Margaret Chan, Founding Dean of the Vanke School of Public Health at Tsinghua University and Former Director-General of the World Health Organization, as well as Dr Harvey Fineberg, President of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, Dean of SSHSPH, said, “The potential to deploy technology and data-centric strategies brings immense opportunities in public health, from being able to improve priority setting in resource-poor countries to more targeted and effective methods in health promotion. However, there are real challenges impeding the widespread uptake and deployment of such precision-based strategies, including the risk of widening social and inter-country inequities, as well as concerns around data confidentiality and ethics.”

“This conference provides an important platform to convene international experts in the field of Public Health, ranging from practitioners to funders, government representatives to private sector innovators, to discuss and explore present and future strategies related to precision public health,” he added.

Understanding precision public health

Precision public health aims to improve population health by providing the right health intervention to the right people at the right time. This emerging field involves the collection of more accurate individual- and population-level data on genes, environment, behaviour and other social and economic determinants of health. These data could potentially enhance public health actions for improving health in sub-populations most in need of recommended prevention measures. With more precise data, health disparities in the population could also be better addressed and reduced.

Sparking collaboration

In his opening address, Guest-of-Honour Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, Director of Medical Services at the Singapore Ministry of Health, remarked that the relevance of precision public health has never been greater.

“Today we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, confronted by a growing myriad of diseases and ailments that threaten to afflict populations in developing and developed countries alike. The use of precision public health allows us to collaborate further across countries, specialities and disciplines to share best practices, information and resources. This conference is one such opportunity for us to have more of these collaborative conversations,” Assoc Prof Mak said.

Noting that Singapore is proud to host PPH Asia this year, Assoc Prof Mak said, “We aspire to work together with the local and international community to be at the forefront of novel and emergent technologies and to provide Singaporeans with the benefits that these technologies can bring. It is my hope that this conference will facilitate the pursuit of these agendas in a meaningful, fruitful, and lasting way.”

In a panel discussion addressing issues in relation to precision public health, and measures to improve it, Dr Margaret Chan, who is also an NUS alumna, highlighted the opportunities presented by the global megatrend of new technologies to guide the betterment of global public health. She also reminded the audience not to stray from the core public health tenets of sustainability, effectiveness, and equity. While precision public health is at a nascent stage, Dr Chan said it still has the power and potential to improve health and achieve social justice.

Other panel discussions addressed topics on the advancement of precision public health for low- and middle-income countries, technologies to optimise health outcomes, ways to bring about positive behavioural changes, and more.

“It was enlightening to hear how international NGOs such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are actively bringing life-saving innovations to resource-poor communities in different parts of the world, and at the same time, life insurers utilise the opportunities provided by technology to proactively reach out to policymakers to improve their health instead of reactively providing financial protection,” Prof Teo reflected.

Advancing precision public health in Asia and beyond

At the closing ceremony of the virtual conference, Associate Professor Jeremy Lim, Director of the Leadership Institute for Global Health Transformation (LIGHT) at SSHSPH, announced the founding of the Precision Public Health Asia Society (P-PHAS).

The society aims to promote awareness and advance precision public health, support capacity building in precision public health, and provide a platform for public health practitioners, policymakers, students and academics to come together and share experience and expertise. It will also champion the sustainable and equitable rollout of technology and data in improving the practice of public health.

Over the three days, PPH Asia 2021 examined how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of such precision health technologies and looked forward to what is possible when experts work together to realise the fullest potential of precision public health in Asia and beyond.