Singapore has a proud history of providing quality healthcare to her own people and to international medical travelers. This reputation has not developed overnight, but is the result of significant, continual investment and maintenance. Today, the city-state is a premier medical hub in Asia.
Across Asia, medical services for international medical travelers is booming both in terms of quality and quantity. Singapore, with Thailand, Malaysia and India, have set the pace for a new industry that has emerged as barriers to travel come down and the world flattens. Healthcare, which once tended to be local, is now a global affair.
Note the phrase 'medical travellers'. Dr Jason Yap, Director (Healthcare Services) in the Singapore Tourism Board, which spearheads international marketing for SingaporeMedicine, explains that 'medical tourism' is an inadequate term as people travel for healthcare in many different circumstances, only a few of which are 'touristy' in nature.
Patients may travel for healthcare for different reasons: Essential healthcare (those not available or with waiting lists in the patient's home country); Affordable healthcare (cheaper healthcare than at home); Quality healthcare (better standard than at home); and Premium Healthcare (higher prestige than at home).
No two patients are the same, either in their needs or the type of journey they either want or require. Hence, using the phrase 'medical tourism' is rather like saying 'business tourism' instead of 'business travelers' - quite missing the point.
In 2005, Singapore welcomed 374,000 visitors specifically for healthcare, and many more sought healthcare services while in Singapore for other reasons. Compared to Singapore's population of just 4.2 million, that represents a significant expansion of the healthcare market.
Dr Yap explains, "It is neither possible to maintain the current high level of skills that our healthcare professionals have, nor to afford the latest and best technologies, serving our small population alone. It is well-known that even good doctors with poor volumes 'de-skill' over time. So, it is paradoxically in order to serve our own local patients that we must see international patients. Of course the revenue generated is welcome, but the real bottom line is that we need to serve a wider population to serve our own people well."
So important is international medical travel to Singapore that it established SingaporeMedicine in 2003, a government-industry partnership to coordinate and develop what is already a good healthcare service into an excellent one.The government agencies play distinct roles: Economic Development Board develops healthcare capabilities, IE Singapore supports regionalisation of the local healthcare players and Singapore Tourism Board looks after international marketing and people-oriented services, under the leadership of the Ministry of Health.
So why do patients come to Singapore for healthcare? Singapore has Asia's best healthcare system, according to the World Health Organisation in 2000, and has some one-third of Asia's JCI accredited healthcare facilities. Joint Commission International (JCI), which arose from the Joint Commission for Accreditation of Healthcare Organisations in the USA, accredits healthcare facilities and is the de-facto standard of quality in healthcare and recognises excellence in patient care and hospital management. There is an active research and development environment, so that the best, latest and safest technologies are available.
Another factor that separates Singapore from other destinations, along with the quality of its doctors and services, is the wide range of treatments available. From the high-tech (such as stem-cell transplants, bone marrow and organ transplants, cancer treatment, neurosurgery) to the "commoditised" surgery (which are fairly standardised and comparatively easier to do, e.g. knee and hip replacements) to the medical fringe (such as medical spas and cosmetic surgery). Singapore even has travellers from other countries who fly in just for their specialist outpatient follow-ups.
Of course the attractiveness of the country as a whole also benefits the medical traveler who will find a safe and clean environment, low crime and high security, easy access and convenient transport, good shopping, dining and leisure, and a welcoming and cosmopolitan society - the ideal combination for a safe, effective and speedy recovery with complete peace of mind.
While SingaporeMedicine welcomes the international medical traveler, Dr Yap stresses that the needs of the individual patient remain paramount. "Medical travel is not so much for fun as it is for function. If medical treatment is available, affordable and accessible at home, the patient should stay home and use the local services." However, if you do need healthcare of any kind, then you know in Singapore you'll be in safe hands.