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Here's what you need to know about Singapore's medical tourism

It injected $994m into the economy.

Singapore’s residents are among the healthiest in the world. According to World Health Organisation data, males in the country have an average life expectancy of over 80 years, the fifth highest in the world. Women in Singapore fare even better, with an average life expectancy of 85.1 years, the second highest in the world.

The government’s concerted efforts in the health sector have paid rich dividends. Singapore has a robust public-private healthcare system that comprises a number of world-class hospitals and a large pool of well-qualified medical professionals and technicians.

The strength of the medical infrastructure in the county has had a beneficial spin-off. Over the years, Singapore has become the region’s preferred destination for those seeking advanced medical care.

Singapore attracts those looking for the highest quality of medical care in Southeast Asia

Government statistics reveal that in 2014, people who visited the country with the primary purpose of seeking advanced medical treatment and care injected S$994 million into the economy.

One reason that medical tourism has been such a success is that the Singapore Tourism Board has a number of programmes to promote private healthcare companies. It plays a key role in developing and nurturing referral networks in countries where there is a demand for the medical services that Singapore offers.

An Economist Intelligence Unit report titled Singapore – A regional medical-tourism hub, states that about 550,000 overseas patients visit the city-state every year to seek medical treatment. The US-based International Healthcare Research Centre has ranked Singapore first in Asia in its Medical Tourism Index. Singapore’s position in the world ranking is a very respectable fourth.

Growing medical infrastructure

Data published by the government reveal that the country has 12,459 doctors and 29,894 registered nurses. In 2015, there were over 13,000 hospital beds in Singapore.

Several world-class medical facilities have been added in the recent past. In September 2014, the National Heart Research Institute was established. This specialised institution is the result of a partnership between the government’s National Heart Centre and the Duke-NUS Medical School. The National Heart Centre also added a new building at the end of 2014. This will allow it to double the number of patients that it treats every year. 

Another massive expansion of the country’s medical infrastructure is taking place at the government’s Changi General Hospital. A new nine-storey complex that is expected to be completed by 2017 is being set up. Once it is completed, it is expected to be able to handle 400,000 patients on a yearly basis.

Addressing the high-end medical tourism market

The four-year-old Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital is an excellent example of the quality of healthcare available to foreign visitors. Each patient has the luxury of staying in a single room with floor-to-ceiling windows and a marble bathroom.

The hospital has 13 operating theatres and provides a wide range of specialised medical and healthcare services. It attracts a large number of foreign patients and has built a reputation for offering top-of-the-line medical care as well as facilities that are on par with five-star hotels.

But Singapore may be pricing itself out of the market

The country’s receipts from medical tourism were S$1.1 billion in 2012. The following year, they fell to S$832 million before rising to S$994 million in 2014, the latest year for which data are available.

One reason for the flattening of medical tourism revenues is the competition from other countries in the region. Malaysia, Thailand and several other countries in Southeast Asia have now developed vastly improved medical facilities. While it is true that for the most complicated procedures and specialisations, Singapore is still miles ahead, these countries offer routine surgeries at much lower costs.

A recent report in The Straits Times points out that in Singapore, hip replacement surgery costs about S$14,000. The Mahkota Medical Centre in Malaysia carries out the same procedure for S$8,800. The Malaysian government is promoting medical tourism strongly and the Mahkota Medical Centre is an integral part of its strategy to boost revenues from this niche market. The annual number of foreign patients treated at this facility is a staggering 80,000.

The Straits Times report provides another stark illustration of the cost differential between Singapore and other countries in the region – the rates charged for rooms. Singapore’s Farrer Park Hospital levies S$562 for a basic single room for a day. The rate in Indonesia’s Columbia Asia facility for a similar room is S$77.

Tremendous scope for growth

Singapore’s excellent medical facilities and established healthcare institutions give it a great advantage over other countries promoting medical tourism. The Bloomberg Health-Care Efficiency Index, which gives countries a score based on the life expectancy of its residents and its healthcare expenditure, ranks Singapore in second place, just behind Hong Kong.

The government’s strong focus on this sector will ensure that medical tourism in Singapore continues to grow and thrive.

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