SINGAPORE – For a decade, Scott Wong was known as the strongman of Singapore sports, first competing as a national discus thrower before making the switch to weightlifting.
Trained in this never-say-die environment, the 29-year-old is not one to wilt under pressure, or a challenge.
Which was the situation the former national athlete found himself in early last month when he volunteered for a role on the front line caring for Covid-19 patients.
Wong, a medical officer at the JurongHealth Campus’ Jurong Community Hospital (JCH), told The Straits Times that he often struggled to communicate with virus-stricken patients – the majority of whom are foreign workers – as many did not speak English well or were illiterate and could not tell him their medical symptoms.
Wong, who works at JCH’s sub acute care department, got to work designing and building an app to help patients communicate better with healthcare staff.
“My motivation came from seeing the problems on the ground,” said the ex-athlete, who competed in the 2014 Commonwealth Games as a weightlifter.
“I had a patient whose wife had just given birth, and she was worried sick that her husband had the virus. His parents were also illiterate, and the patient was struggling to explain his condition.”
The medical doctor, who was a fellow under the Singapore-Stanford Biodesign programme, worked on the software’s User Interface design and prototyping and roped in his friend Prasanta Bhattacharya, an Indian research scientist who provided ideas on how to use Artificial Intelligence to analyse the patients’ responses. He was also introduced to Matej Kramny, a Czech software architect and engineer who helped to code the software for the app.
Three weeks, 160 patient interviews and 10 prototypes later, the app, tentatively named Covid Buddy, will be ready to roll out by mid-June.
Available in Bengali and Tamil, it uses a combination of pictures, audio and simple questions for patients to report their symptoms – such as fever, diarrhoea or coughing – quickly. The information can then be placed on a QR code for healthcare workers to access and read online or from a distance.
If the user reports shortness of breath, which is “a red flag indicating serious illness”, he or she will be asked to seek medical help immediately. It also advises patients on the appropriate medication to take for their symptoms. Healthcare staff can select the information to be explained to the patient in his or her own language, and this can then be saved by the patient and sent to their next of kin.
Chuckling as he told ST about spending “too many hours” on the app, he added: “In a way it’s exhausting but we split the workload and support each other.
“I really enjoy working on it…it gives me variety in my work as I’m usually working, looking at patients, or resting,” said Wong, who is staying at a hotel as a precaution because his elderly parents have pre-existing health conditions.
Developing the app also came with a number of challenges, such as resolving technical issues and finding the right pictures to illustrate the patient’s symptoms. Through trial and error during tests with patients during his shifts, he discovered that a photo of a portaloo, for example, was more useful at illustrating diarrhoea, as compared to one of a person clutching his stomach in pain.
The app has received early prototype funding support from Singapore Biodesign, a national healthtech talent development programme based at A*Star, of which Wong is an alumnus, and he added that they are working on a fully functional prototype, and “hope that it can be deployed in a community care facility soon”.
Wong added that he is in discussions with JCH and Ng Teng Fong General Hospital for the app to be used with patients. He is hopeful that it can be used in other countries such as Bangladesh, which is why he has chosen to make the software available on an open source platform, so that others can use it for free, and improve on the product.
He also hopes it can be developed for use with mental health patients, or the elderly in future.
When asked if he had considered patenting or selling his app, Wong said: “This is not about fame or credit, but creating something that people can deploy and use quickly.
“There are two choices: either I can use it to benefit myself or use it to benefit the wider community. That (profiting from it) was never the intention, it’s far more meaningful to save lives.”
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