SOS, a medical assistance specialist, has pioneered global healthcare coverage


International SOS was born in the mid-1980s in response to Southeast Asia’s growing demand for international standards of healthcare from the expatriate business and diplomatic community.

Today the company employs over 5,000 staff, including 1,800 full-time doctors, nurses, medics and aero-medical specialists, working across five continents, with operating companies in 70 countries.

The company provides day-to-day healthcare services for international business operations and individual clients, as well as an extensive global referral network.

Dr Jeffrey Staples, medical director, consulting services, Asia, International SOS, says: “International SOS is one of the early pioneers of medical travel. More than 20 years ago, we started our aero-medical evacuation and referral business, developing a network of thoroughly vetted preferred providers in centres of medical excellence, and transporting patients to them.

“Medical tourism is a fast-growing field, which appears to have significant room for continued growth and maturation for the foreseeable future. We have competition in the area of aero-medical transport, but no company comes close to International SOS in the range of services we provide to corporations, governments, insurance companies and individuals. From emergency medical services to lifestyle and healthcare management, we are the only company that provides an integrated solution. I am, personally, not aware of any assistance company that is pursuing the medical tourism field. I believe that this is currently being driven by hospitals and (medical) travel agents.”

The company has developed its own proprietary network database, the Service Provider Information Network (SPIN) with a list of 48,000 registered preferred providers.

SPIN is based on International SOS’s own auditing systems, where individual practitioners and major hospitals are assessed before becoming partner providers. The process involves site inspections and a rigorous set of surveys and assessments.

Aside from incorporating outside providers into the network, International SOS also owns and operates 26 of its own clinics in countries where international standards of medical care are poor or non-existent. Each clinic offers primary care, diagnostic care and round-the-clock emergency care.

“We seek the best possible care that is locally available. That doesn’t always mean JCI-certified hospitals or clinics as we operate in many countries where there are no such accredited facilities. We have our own rating system that identifies the best provider possible in each location. These can deal with most primary healthcare needs. Then there are countries which have clusters of world-class facilities meeting international standards. In Asia, we have designated three such ‘centres of excellence’: Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok,” says Staples.

“If a client needs a referral to a doctor, all they need to do is call one of our Alarm Centers, where they will be put through to one of our in-house physicians. The SOS physician will discuss the client’s needs/concerns and help him/her to determine the best way to proceed. If they need to be referred to a doctor, the SOS physician will recommend the most appropriate provider from our extensive network of preferred providers. We can then schedule the appointment for the client, as well as help with arrangements for transportation and accommodation. We then work with both the preferred provider and the client to ensure that all concerns are appropriately addressed and that the client has all the support and follow-up that they require, both from the individual and the corporate perspectives.”

The company’s in-house aviation experts make the arrangements necessary to deal with any medical or security request requiring ground or air transportation, including medical escorts. These include arranging ground ambulances and booking tickets for travel on scheduled airlines, to evacuation by air ambulance, helicopter, jet or even, in situations of mass casualties, military aircraft.

“We handle 40 patient movements per day and we have a specialist legal department that takes care of travel liability issues. Major airlines are concerned with passenger safety, comfort and timing. Airlines certainly don’t want patients travelling on their services that disturb other patients,” says Staples.

The majority of patients will be able to walk on unassisted or, at most, be able to go from wheelchair to seat. As long as there is a doctor’s letter confirming the patient is fit to fly, there is rarely a problem.

However, for more serious illnesses and injuries, using scheduled airline routes may not be possible.

“If there are stretcher cases, then rows of seats need to be blocked off, and that takes time to arrange. There are also safety restrictions on bringing on oxygen tanks and the like. In any case, with these more extreme cases, we can arrange transport by our own air ambulance. These have onboard ICU facilities.”

The company’s dedicated air ambulances are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and are located in Germany, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Singapore, China and Papua New Guinea.

All the medical crews are trained in advanced life-support techniques and aviation medicine to provide personalised care and assistance.

Staples is keen to point out that the company’s overall medical expertise gives it major advantages over most firms that have set themselves up as medical-travel agents.

“Medical-travel agents should be cautious about transporting patients, and should always require medical clearance from a licensed physician prior to travel. There are numerous conditions where a patient is stable on the ground, but will be physiologically challenged in the air. If these challenges are not anticipated correctly, significant complications can arise in-flight. Moreover, even if a patient is stable enough for travels, he may need additional support in-transit. Furthermore, once the patient has been treated and is ready to return to his/her home country, another assessment for fitness to travel must be undertaken, and appropriate support provided.”

The company’s global reach is such that it has secured contracts from a large number of multinational companies, seeking expert support and assistance. “Our client list is pretty extensive at the top end of the corporate ladder. We work with 82 percent of the Fortune 100 companies and 63 percent of the Fortune 500 companies,” Staples says.


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