We look at how medical travel agents view the state of Singapore


By Kenny Cole
As one of the world’s top healthcare hubs, Singapore has a reputation for a more meticulous headcounts than many of its rival destinations.

Inbound patient figures for 2007 were not yet available, as IMTJ went to press, but were expected to be around the 500,000 mark, up from the 410,000 reported for 2006.

A substantial proportion of those numbers comes, not surprisingly, from patients in nearby countries, especially Indonesia and Malaysia.

Indonesia has long been one of the main source markets for Singapore’s healthcare providers. While still a country beset by significant poverty, Indonesia’s population of 250 million also includes a substantial number of wealthy individuals. They benefit from the short distances and many air connections between Singapore and the main Indonesian cities of Jakarta, Surabaya and Yogyakarta.

However, this isn’t simply a matter of distance. Family and business links often mean that richer Indonesians have relations or property in Singapore, making extended trips which means medical treatment is easy to arrange.

While Malaysia’s own ambitions in expanding healthcare will no doubt eat into that country’s supply to the Singapore’s market, there are other regional prizes. Vietnam now has a growing middle class, who can afford overseas treatment, and Singapore is an easily accessible destination being only two hours away.

A second factor in Singapore’s favour is that the city is a base for many regional headquarters of multinational firms. The corporate sector is capable of generating a great deal of business. Companies may provide healthcare packages for their senior staff dotted across the region, or demand that their top executives take regular health examinations and tests.

In all of these cases, Singapore is chosen primarily due to its quality of healthcare outcomes and because the city’s medical reputation is well established in the region.

However, for those less familiar with Asia in general or the city state in particular, healthcare facilitators need to reassure and inform their patient clients.

Saroja Mohanasundaram, CEO of Healthbase Online in Massachussetts, says that some of her US clients know little about Singapore.

“Many people are still under the impression that Singapore is like any other Asian country. There is a lot of education that goes on to explain to them that Singapore is a developed nation. We provide resources at www.healthbase.com and through our communications with our customers to change perceptions about Singapore.

“I have visited Singapore multiple times and am very impressed with the infrastructure, cleanliness, technology and communications in the country. Singaporeans are not only knowledgeable and intelligent but also very customer-friendly and well organised.

“It gives our customers peace of mind when they go to well-developed countries like Singapore for healthcare,” she says.

Unlike well-heeled regional patients, for whom quality care is the overriding factor, long-haul patients from the US or Europe may be more driven by the lure of cost savings. While Singapore can deliver on this factor too, Mohanasundaram stresses that this should never be the sole or decisive element.

“Though pricing is the number one criteria for many of our customers, quality is always our top priority. Healthbase only works with high-quality facilities. We have seen that clients are very particular about the healthcare facility when it comes to major medical procedures like cardiac, spinal or orthopaedic. They pay a great deal of attention to quality. Some of our customers have chosen top facilities like National Heart Centre and Raffles Hospital for their cardiac and orthopaedic procedures respectively.”

One of the top private-sector providers on the island is Raffles Hospital. Today, 35 percent of all patients at Raffles Hospital are foreign, originating from more than 120 countries. The hospital is aiming to increase this figure to 50 percent within the next five years, by tapping into new markets such as Russia and Mongolia. The three main existing markets are resident expatriates, Indonesians and Malaysians.

The group has regional staff in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dhaka, Bangladesh and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Another leading private-sector player is Parkway Healthcare, which has three JCI-accredited hospitals, Gleneagles, East Shore and Mount Elizabeth. A fourth is in construction in the city’s Novena district, an area emerging as a healthcare cluster.

Over one third of all Parkway’s patients are from overseas according to the company, which further claims that almost half of Singapore’s international patients are treated at its facilities.

Parkway recently became the first medical group in Singapore to join US healthcare network, Companion Global Healthcare, based in South Carolina.

Since a key element of healthcare is trained nursing staff, the new 324-room hospital will put added pressure on labour supply. Parkway has said it plans to train 800 nurses for its own needs at one of its hospitals in Malaysia.

Apart from the major hospitals, Singapore is also blessed by a wide range of specialist clinics. US institutions including Johns Hopkins and The West Clinic Excellence Cancer Center have set up medical centres in Singapore and contribute to the city’s status as an advanced healthcare hub.

However, at the core of the Singaporean system are the government-owned hospital clusters, grouped as Singhealth and the National Healthcare Group (NHG) (see “State of Health”, IMTJ no. 2). These clusters include specialist units such as the National Heart Centre, National Neuroscience Institute and so on.

One noticeable feature common to both public- and private-sector providers in Singapore is the emphasis placed on patient liaison, with helplines, online support and international patient reception centres.

Dr Tyrone Goh, executive director, National Healthcare Group International, says: “Our ‘partners’ [or what others call ‘agents’] in our overseas centres act as our first point of contact to help facilitate patients seeking medical treatment at NHG. Through them, they know what to provide in terms of their previous medical history, scans, etc. They would also know the pricing for the proposed treatment (many shop and compare) and also facilitate visas and air transfers. The partners thus play a very important role in this aspect.

“NHG International looks after our foreign patients at NHG and we also have a dedicated international patient liaison centre (IPLC) where we have a group of trained associates who act as a link between patient/partner and our doctors.”

The support of internationally renowned healthcare brands as well as international accreditation is credited by Mohanasundaram as a major advantage.

“Healthbase customers choose Singapore mainly for cardiac, spinal, orthopaedic and cancer treatments. The general repute of Singapore hospitals, plus the fact that they are internationally accredited, inspires confidence
in patients.”

Mohanasundaram also credits the wider infrastructure as a reason why Healthbase chooses to send its patient customers to the island, although this has a price.

“At our partner hospitals in Singapore, the patient support services and logistics are excellent. As far as hotel accommodation is concerned, the rates are relatively on the higher side. After being discharged from the hospital, our clients usually stay in Singapore for several days before taking their return flight home. These high hotel charges can constitute quite a substantial portion of their medical travel bill.”


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