The Novena Medical Center in Singapore. The city state is one of the top medical desinations in the world, receiving an estimated 850,000 foreign patients in 2012 and generating revenue worth $3.5 billion. (Cecilia Tee / For China Daily Asia Weekly)
Lin Yu Shan feels she was given a new lease of life in Singapore.
Two years ago, Lin was completely blind after complications from a life-threatening skin condition. Three surgeries notwithstanding, her right eye was on the verge of melting when mounting desperation brought her to the Eye and Cornea Transplant Centre, a subsidiary of the Singapore Medical Group.
Award-winning ophthalmologist Dr Leonard Ang performed a complicated four-hour emergency surgery on the patient from Taiwan to reconstruct the eye surface and replace the diseased cornea with an artificial one.
It was like a miracle for Lin as she could see in her right eye after a week. Two and a half months later, her vision was completely restored in the eye, enabling her to return to a life of light and sight again.
The 41-year-old’s treatment is one of the success stories that have bolstered Singapore’s position as a top medical destination. Growing numbers of patients travel from all over the world to Asia for good, faster and, at times, more affordable healthcare services.
"Singapore was already receiving some 370,000 healthcare visitors in 1997,” says Patients Beyond Borders, the well-known guide for international medical travelers. “Stories of patients (even heads of states) traveling there for medical care go back decades.
"In 2006, there were 410,000 visits to Singapore specifically for healthcare.”
While the figures for last year have not been released yet, a spokesperson from Singapore’s Ministry of Health adds that 35,959 medical tourists in 2011 sought “acute care” in both private and public hospitals in Singapore.
These travelers, reports say, mostly came from neighboring Indonesia (47.2 percent) and Malaysia (11.5 percent).
A study last year by the business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan (India), commissioned by Religare Health Trust, estimated that Singapore would receive about 850,000 foreign patients in 2012, generating medical tourism revenue worth $3.5 billion.
And in its forecast for the Asian medical tourism industry, research agency Renub Research expects the number will exceed 1 million by 2015.
SingaporeMedicine (SingMed), the multi-agency government-industry partnership established in 2003 to bolster Singapore’s position as a top medical destination, provides the reasons that have made the island republic a choice for patients.
First, there is the reputation factor.
"Singapore is known for its excellence, efficiency and effectiveness,” the SingMed website says. “The international reputation of Singapore’s airport, airline and port is evidence of Singapore’s standards and achievements.”
Many of the hospitals are internationally accredited and the physicians trained in the best centers in the world. All this is enhanced by the image of transparency. Many healthcare institutions provide information about their clinical results on their websites, which helps potential patients make informed decisions.
Then there is the safety aspect.
"The people in Singapore enjoy high security and low crime,” the site adds. “Singapore is one destination where medical travelers can receive medical care of the highest quality in an environment that is safe and welcoming, with no uncertainties of wars and bombs, government and social unrest or natural disasters, and no worries about blood safety.”
Finally, Singapore is a regional medical hub where medical professionals gather for conferences and training as well as home to key plants and regional headquarters for leading biomedical companies such as Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.
While, cost-wise, Singapore is seen as being more expensive than its Asian peers like India and Thailand, Raffles Hospital, where foreigners make up about one-third of the total number of patients, says quality medical care is still a priority for people when it comes to medical travel.
"Factors such as clinical care and outcomes still outweigh the cost factor,” says Foo Min Meng, senior manager, hospital marketing, at Raffles Hospital. “After all, Singapore is ranked sixth by the World Health Organization (in a study from 2000) and number one in Asia where healthcare services are concerned.
"So it becomes an obvious choice for quality healthcare services.”
Raffles Hospital has been witnessing a growing demand for its specialist services like cardiology, orthopedics, oncology, obstetrics and gynaecology.
"These specialties are our centers of excellence and many of our overseas patients come over specifically for these services,” Foo adds.
With the increase in numbers of overseas patients, the hospital realized it needed help with processes like medical referrals, translations and visa applications. Consequently, it opened an International Patients Centre in 2001 to connect overseas patients to its specialists and services and make the visits as smooth as possible.
It also opened three clinics in Hong Kong and one more in Shanghai, as well as posting representatives in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Brunei and Russia.
Patients from Indonesia, Cambodia and Russia form the bulk of overseas medical tourists to the hospital.
Like many other private healthcare institutions in Singapore that receive a large number of overseas medical care seekers, Raffles Hospital works with select hotels in Singapore to provide corporate accommodation rates for patients and links them up with travel agencies to provide a seamless travel and accommodation experience.
As a medical hub, Singapore also has a linguistic edge. Besides English, a large number of the population speaks Mandarin, which is a draw for Chinese patients.
Foo says Raffles Hospital is popular among patients from different areas in China.
"Their reason for selecting Singapore (is) the quality and trustworthiness of treatments as well as our doctors’ ability to speak Mandarin, leaving no space for medical explanation being lost in translation,” she says.
"They are usually here for services such as high-end health screening with specific attention to heart diseases and cancer. They also come for second opinions on medical conditions relating to cardiology, obstetrics and gynaecology, orthopedics and oncology.”
Besides Mandarin-speaking doctors, the hospital has Chinese interpreters who are able to translate for patients as well as prepare their medical reports in Mandarin.
Foo outlines the other tertiary reasons that bring in medical travelers: “The shopping havens boasting of the latest fashion trends, the transport accessibility as well as the clean and safe environment.
"(All) this will fall under the umbrella of medical tourism.”
To foster the development of Singapore as a medical hub, three state agencies are supporting SingMed.
The Singapore Economic Development Board promotes new investments and develops capabilities in the healthcare industry; International Enterprise Singapore aids the growth and expansion of Singapore’s healthcare players abroad; and Singapore Tourism Board (STB) helps private healthcare players with their channel development work.
In 2009, STB launched the Singapore Destination Medicine site in collaboration with American company MedicaView International to streamline the lengthy process of searching, comparing and selecting Singapore healthcare services online, especially for medical travelers from North America.
However, while infrastructure and technology are being improved, Singapore, like its other peers, has to still brace for a major challenge in future.
"One of the challenges for the healthcare industry in Singapore will be the management of manpower resources in terms of doctor and nurse shortages when the number of medical travelers increases,” Foo warns.
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