Is Singapore losing its appeal in medical tourism?

Singapore has been dominating the medical industry across Asia with its vastly efficient healthcare system that is supported by sophisticated technology. This is however, facing a decline as alternatives for more cost-competitive healthcare is sought elsewhere.

Since 2015, the Singapore Tourism Board has stopped providing concrete figures of medical tourism profits, placing it under a generic category called ‘Others’ at $5.8 billion. Research have shown that medical tourists previously contribute to a significant amount of impact to the healthcare business in Singapore, which have fell to 30% in 2016. It has since taken a toll on revenue within the sector.

Slowing growth for medical tourism

There are various factors that erode the gloss on Singapore's medical tourism industry. More than half a million Indonesians travel to Singapore for medical care each year but this number is gradually falling as domestic healthcare improves.

In addition, many patients have also diverted to places like Melaka, Penang and Johor where hospitals are not only brand new, but also offer a very competitive rate.

What are the concerns for Singapore?

1. Resource allocation

With scare resources in Singapore, an investment towards medical tourism is likely to indicate a reallocation of resources from domestic healthcare. As such, this breeds “unhappiness” amongst local patients who may feel that preferential treatment is given to foreign patients instead.

In addition, most medical tourists have chosen to travel to Singapore to avoid long waiting times in their local country but this has created a demand which have placed an upward pressure on medical fees. This has resulted to an overwhelming demand in both public and private hospitals in Singapore which have caused patients to seek healthcare services from neighbouring countries instead.

2. Embrace and integrate technological innovation

Public hospitals have been tapping into technology more than ever. Ng Teng Fong General Hospital for instance, was recognised for being 99.9% paperless last November.

A national telemedicine plan that was launched in 2016 allows more patients to have e-consultations with doctors. Patients who return to their home countries after a procedure can be kept in contact via telemedicine, especially if they are unable to re-visit shortly. Hence, healthcare companies in Singapore will need to learn how they may leverage on technology by building an operating model that they can roll out efficiently and consistently.  

3. National shared medical database: ‘One patient, One health record’

In an attempt to provide better care to patients in Singapore, all healthcare institutions will soon be required to provide data to the National Electronic Health Record (NEHR). Gan Kim Yong, Health Minister of Singapore gave information that legislation will soon be introduced through a Healthcare Services Bill.

NEHR is a platform set up in 2011 to gather patients’ records such as their medication and laboratory reports from different care providers. This information is then shared across providers.

At present, sharing of data is voluntary and most public health institutions contribute to this patient data. However, only about 3% of private healthcare licensees, including general practitioners, private hospitals and nursing homes, are contributing to the national repository. With Singapore marching towards the Smart Nation movement, this database must also keep pace - with sufficient safeguard in its maintenance of integrity.

4. New Cancer Centre at Biopolis

A new cancer centre that is built at Biopolis, in Buona Vista, will open in stages from 2018 onwards.

Named as the Advanced Medicine Oncology Centre, it will provide imaging, treatment delivery and clinical informatics technologies for healthcare professionals and researchers alike, which would attract not just patients but experts from overseas markets.

"The new Advanced Medicine Oncology Centre aligns with the founding goal of the Singapore Institute of Advanced Medicine Holdings to provide earlier detection and first-time-right diagnosis of cancer, as well as safer, more cost-effective treatment by advancing care enabled through research, technology and education," said Dr Djeng Shih Kien, Founder and Chairman of the Singapore Institute of Advanced Medicine Holdings (SAM).

Singapore remains a popular destination for complex treatments

70% of foreign patients who visit Singapore consult private specialists and contribute approximately 20% to the revenue of private hospitals. In order to further boost these figures, Singapore must continue to reinvent themselves and reinvest, perhaps through the export of medication instead of passively waiting for foreign visits.

Despite the above mentioned, medical tourism in Singapore is likely to be supported by the growing demand for quality private healthcare that is rising in tandem with an ageing population, an increase in income and private insurance coverage. Hence, Singapore has been focusing on sectors within diagnosis and oncology, stem cell as well as regenerative therapies.

While a low price might initiate interest in medical treatment with neighbouring countries, return visits are still built on profound patient satisfaction and trust that has been formed with doctors and nurses. Successful healthcare destinations would need to provide foreign patients with a pleasant experience through organisational innovation and service quality such as superior patient–doctor–nurse relationship. This has thus placed Singapore in a favourable position given its high quality medical staff and equipment.

How do you feel about the concerns mentioned and how can Singapore retain its position as a medical hub? If you are interested to find out more on the relevant trends within the medical market, visit our LinkedIn page for more insights.

Source: Nikkei Asian Review, The Straits Times, iGate Research, TODAY Online, The Business Times

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