Meet the Singaporean doctor helping businesses navigate the pandemic
As medical director for International SOS, Dr Low Kiang Wei and his team have spent the past few months working tirelessly with organisations to develop or optimise business continuity plans.
Being in the business of saving lives – anytime and anywhere, Dr Low Kiang Wei is no stranger to navigating the human and business impact of deadly pathogens, such as the Zika virus, dengue, and bird flu.
The 36-year-old Singaporean serves as medical director for International SOS, a global medical and security risk management company that provides real-time support and assistance from over 1,000 locations in 90 countries.
But while communicable disease experts had previously warned of a global pandemic prior to COVID-19, Dr Low, like many of his peers in the medical field, was surprised by the extent in which the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on lives and businesses around the world.
At the time of writing, the spread of COVID-19 shows no signs of abating.
World Health Organization figures show that the virus has infected more than 18 million people globally, killing almost 700,000. Meanwhile, governments and businesses are having to make complex decisions about adapting to a new normal while living with the virus.
In a phone interview with CNA Luxury, Dr Low said, “Within the medical community, it has always been at the back of our minds that a pandemic is around the corner and that it may affect commercial operations.”
“Back in February, I was expecting that (COVID-19) would be controlled a lot sooner, given the measures that governments were taking. But I, as well as many medical professionals, have been proven wrong. This is truly unprecedented, and this is now everyone’s problem at this point in time,” he added.
DEVELOPING AND OPTIMISING BUSINESS CONTINUITY PLANS
Since the novel coronavirus emerged earlier this year, Dr Low and his colleagues at International SOS have had their work cut out for them.
Dr Low’s job responsibilities involve the clinical governance of medical services projects under the Singapore division.
He also handles the ongoing advances in digital projects in Asia, including telehealth and medical technology solutions, which have emerged as important tools in delivering healthcare amid safe distancing measures.
Over the past few months, he and his team have worked with organisations to develop or optimise business continuity plans.
They have also helped developed return-to-work and return-to-travel polices and processes, tailoring them based on each client’s unique risk profile and in accordance with local laws and requirements.
“The ever-evolving nature of COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many businesses off-balance, disrupting business operations, affecting the mental well-being of employees and causing huge uncertainty and anxiety for both business leaders and employees. Even in the early stages, around end-January, we’ve had a number of Singapore and regional companies coming to us looking at pandemic preparedness plans,” said Dr Low, adding that engagement levels have since “gone through the roof”.
On the essential business travel front, Dr Low said International SOS has partnered the International Chamber of Commerce to launch a mobile app called ICC AOKpass.
The app verifies users of their COVID-19 compliance status, so that employees and businesses can have a safer, more efficient and controlled path to resume work, he added.
Underlying the bespoke organisation-level advice is around-the-clock telehealth access to businesses using its services. Dr Low said this 24/7 support allows employees to access tactical advice for health and security concerns, seek tele-consultation and remote counselling, no matter when it is and where they are.
“Access to security advice and assistance cannot be neglected as this pandemic has led to second- and third-order security incidents like xenophobic attacks, social unrest or wider political instability in some locations. And when needed, we have boots on the ground to provide urgent on-the-ground assistance to employees too,” he added.
“The ever-evolving nature of COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many businesses off-balance, disrupting business operations, affecting the mental well-being of employees and causing huge uncertainty and anxiety for both business leaders and employees.” – Dr Low Kiang Wei
MEDICAL EVACUATIONS AMID COVID-19
Part of Dr Low’s work also involve coordinating medical evacuations, which have taken on a whole new level of complexity amid the pandemic.
This may be done via commercial flights or air ambulances, which serve as “intensive care units (ICUs) in the sky”. Air ambulances are suited up with equipment that are available in an ICU, in a mobile format, and are suitable for complex medical evacuations, Dr Low said.
According to him, International SOS has performed over 250 air ambulance movements for patients, including COVID-19 cases, since the start of the pandemic.
Among them was a successful evacuation of a 42-year-old Singaporean woman with Stage 4 breast cancer in May during the height of the pandemic. She was diagnosed while in the United States.
“As commercial flights were cancelled during the pandemic, she was evacuated by air ambulance as she needed to be transported in a fast and safe manner,” Dr Low said.
“We also had to ensure that her condition had stabilised before she boarded the plane, given the physiological strain of air travel. Throughout the journey, she was accompanied by medically-trained staff and was safely transported to a hospital upon arrival.”
While medical evacuations have never been simple, Dr Low said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought additional challenges and complexities: A simple evacuation that could be done in hours can now stretch to days.
“One major challenge are international border restrictions. With many countries still shutting their borders, our usual evacuation pathways may not be available. This means we have less options available when evacuating patients to the closest appropriate location with the necessary standard of medical care,” he shared.
Further complicating matters at this point in time are limited commercial flights options, which do not offer the time flexibility necessary for critical medical evacuations, Dr Low said.
“To this end, we are in continuous close contact with local health authorities and relevant aviation authorities to coordinate medical evacuations during this time,” he added.
WHY MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT IS KEY
Even as organisations and employees navigate uncertainty while maintaining bottom lines amid COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Low believes that mental health support should be a key consideration in business resilience.
Citing International SOS’ Return to Work survey, where one in five Singapore respondents reporting concern about the impact of mental health issues on their business operations in the next 12 months, Dr Low said, “Now more than ever, with working from home being the new norm for a majority of the workforce, companies need to build a culture where employees feel their wellbeing is key priority.”
A way to do this is to provide employees with access to mental health support and foster regular and meaningful dialogues, he said.
“Now more than ever, with working from home being the new norm for a majority of the workforce, companies need to build a culture where employees feel their wellbeing is key priority.” – Dr Low Kiang Wei
Maintaining good mental health is also currently at the top on Dr Low’s personal priorities.
With his work at International SOS, Dr Low has experienced COVID-19 across a very broad spectrum, from working with isolation facilities to handling medical evacuations. Like many healthcare staff, he was concerned about the impact that work might have on his family, particularly his ageing parents.
“I didn’t visit my parents for months when I was working in the isolation facility,” he said.
Work life has also changed drastically in the last six months.
“Previously I travelled quite frequently for work, almost every month, met clients and there were lots of human interactions,” he said.
“I used to be quite happy to stay at home because I was out so much but with this work-from-home arrangement, I find myself jumping at any opportunity to socialise. Even though I’m rather introverted, I’ve seen how (the lack of face-to-face social interaction) affects me and makes me a bit grumpier.”
Dr Low has also started exercising a lot more. “On days when I’m frustrated, I’ll break out a HIIT workout at home to take my mind off things,” he said.
Taking the advice he gives to colleagues and to clients, Dr Low said he is also learning to be kinder to himself during this unprecedented period.
“I’ll set a target. If I meet it, that’s good. If I don’t, I’ll keep in mind that this is special circumstance right now and don’t beat myself up over it,” he said.