When you don't feel well, you'd visit a doctor. Singapore has developed such a reputation for healthcare excellence, that thousands of people from the region come here to visit our doctors. Increasingly, we have to treat them like valued customers, and provide them with the same levels of service that all tourists would expect.
By Grace Chua
Healthcare tourism is not a new phenomenon. It is a concept deeply rooted in ancient practices. As early as 3000 BC, people travelled to distant places seeking cures for various ailments. People with eye problems travelled to Tell Brak in Syria, where healing deities were believed to perform miracles. The ancient Greeks travelled from all over the Mediterranean to Epidauria, home of healing god Asklepios, to seek cures. In the 19th century, the wealthy travelled to Switzerland for healing mineral waters which promised miracle cures for all kinds of diseases. As evidenced throughout history, people were not adverse to a bit of travelling to seek medical help
Modern medical tourism
Times have changed and things are a little more complex. It is the age of consumerism, technological advancement and economic under currents. People are still traveling to seek cures but a lot more factors and considerations are involved other than ‘it’s a miracle cure’. Cheaper air travel, differing technological advancement and legal atmosphere provide greater choice and variety. Currency exchange rates mean cost-effective services. All these factors and more come together to fuel the growth of medical tourism, making it a big business. Not only for the medical practitioners but also for many other ancillary services. It has a knock-on effect. Patientsare usually accompanied by at least one other person. Accommodation, transport, and sustenance are the basic requirements. Medical visitors and chaperones may decide to make the most of their dollar and take in some sights and do a touch of shopping as well. More medical visitors mean more revenue all round.
Over time this practice of traveling to improve one’s health combined with the powers of modern economics pushed healthcare tourism to another level. This boom in the industry of medical tourism is particularly evident in the Asia Pacifi c region. The three main contenders in this region are Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Thailand earned 19 billion baht (S$773 million) from treating about 800,000 foreigners in 2003. In 2004 Thailand received 1.1 million foreign patients. The Director General of the Department of Health Services Support of Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, Dr Narongsaki Aungkasuvapala stated that the projected revenue from healthcare and spa tourism in Thailand for the year 2005 is 23 billion baht. In 2002, it was believed that the state of Penang in Malaysia alone received more than 70,000 foreign patients for cosmetic surgery.
Despite competition from other countries in the Asia Pacifi c region, Singapore remains the precursor in healthcare tourism. In the year 2000, Singapore welcomed 150,000 medical visitors. The numbers grewfrom 211,600 in the year 2002 to 230,000 in the year 2003. The Singapore Tourism Board has estimated that 500,000 medical visitors will grace our shores in 2007. It is also targeted that by 2012, the little island of Singapore will welcome 1 million foreign medical visitors annually, consequently contributing to 1% of Singapore’s GDP.
So what makes Singapore such an ideal location for foreigners seeking medical treatments? Singapore has many centres of excellence providing specialised treatments especially in areas of cardiology, ophthalmology and oncology. Many medical visitors come to Singapore for basic things like health screening to complex surgeries and cancer treatment. Our little island is a premier biomedical sciences hub, home to many leading biomedical companies. Research is actively encouraged and supported. This enables healthcare professionals in Singapore to provide up-to-date and innovative treatments and therapies, which greatly enhances Singapore’s reputation as one of the leading hubs for healthcare in Asia.
Singapore also boosts an excellent pool of medical expertise. Regular host to many international medical conventions, symposiums and training seminars, our island attracts many international medical professionals. The island played host to the Asia Pacific Congress of Cardiology (APCC), the Asian Australasian Congress of Neurological Surgery (AACNS), the Singapore Eye Research Institute-American Association of Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (SERI-ARVO), and TransplantAsia 2004. These medical professionals bring with them their expertise, building strong networks links through learning and sharing.
Health Science Authority (HAS) of Singapore sets and upholds high regulatory standards, safe guarding public health and effi ciency while facilitating advances in medical technologies. Consequently patients have faster access to safe new treatments and healthcare products.
Famous for being clean, green and safe, we also have a world-class airport for easy access to the country and impeccable transportation infrastructure islandwide. Our friendly island is accessible linguistically and culturally. Being a multilingual state, foreigners fi nd it easy to communicate with the locals. We have a variety of food types to satisfy almost any palate and religion and our multi-cultural society does not intimidate.
The Singapore government has set up various institutions to help promote Singapore as Asia’s premier healthcare service hub for international patients. Singapore Tourism Board has a division for Healthcare Services and SingaporeMedicine, a multi-agency government initiative was created to make Singapore’s world-class healthcare services easily accessible to international patients. SingaporeMedicine’s website provides information and links to the local healthcareestablishments. Private ones like Raffl es Hospital and Parkway Group Healthcare, and public ones like National Healthcare Group and Singhealth. These healthcare establishments each have their respective International Patient Service Centres and are furbished to the highest standards. These International Patient Service Centres provide friendly and trained customer service offi cers who will assist patients in every possible way. Arrangements for appointments, referrals to the appropriate specialists, hospital admission, followup care, transportation, concierge services such as interpreters, travel and visa arrangements, even currency exchange, are part of the services available to foreign patients. Parkway Group Healthcare for example offers a 24-hour hotline.
Singapore, a medical tourist hotspot. Icky or edgy?
What’s not to like? Healthcare, sightseeing, cuisine and shopping, it’s a one-stop shop for the medical visitors and it does wonders for the local economy. Medical visitors can get their medical ailments or problems attended to by world-class medical practitioners in a top standard environment. The local medical scene is constantly up dated and at the forefront of medical technological advancement. The island benefits from the revenue, boosting the economy whilst continuing to maintain its dynamic and multi-cultural atmosphere.
Does the whole idea of profiting from medicine smack of materialism? Violate some moral ethic somewhere? Many cynics might see this as the ultimate in a show-me– the-money society, where the line between patient and customer has been rubbed out, especially when medical tourists are visiting for the big money procedures. But is it really all about the money? Economics and money is just the unavoidable ugly side of things. Perhaps it seems so jarring because we now acknowledge the profits to be had from medicine openly, rather than sit on a moral high horse in denial.
The number of medical visitors is climbing with each passing year. This can only mean that medical patients are benefiting from it. So why not embrace it, after all the relationship between the island and its medical visitors is a symbiotic one, and well worth developing to the fullest.