Medical Care , Health & Wellness
The Lion City has managed to navigate the pandemic with one of the lowest death rates among high-income nations and has quickly reopened its borders to visitors, paving the way for an early rebound in medical tourism arrivals. With the health emergency under control, Singapore is now pondering how to be better prepared for future pandemics and how to improve the health of its citizens with more targeted preventive approaches. We sat down with the CEOs of three prominent private hospitals to better understand where the city’s healthcare is heading.
Mount Elizabeth Hospitals: Leading Singapore’s medical tourism recovery
Like some of their peers, Mount Elizabeth Hospital and Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital recorded a surge in foreign healthcare travellers following the reopening of Singapore’s borders.
Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital CEO Dr Peter Chow attributed Singapore’s attraction as an ideal medical tourism destination to its strong branding in medical technology and expertise. “Singapore healthcare holds a strong reputation in quality service and a high concentration of specialists. Its position as an excellent travel hub with transport links to all over the world further complements its accessibility to travellers,” he said. Dr Chow added that this competitive advantage was augmented by the country’s commendable management of the pandemic which saw a synchronised response to COVID-19 by the healthcare sector and the community. This has led to Singapore’s handling of the pandemic being praised by the international community and enabled the country to be the first in the region to open its borders completely. Mount Elizabeth Hospital CEO Yong Yih Ming said he saw a significant rebound in international healthcare tourists originating from traditional markets such as Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
The CEOs view the long-term prospects of Singapore’s healthcare sector as generally optimistic. Dr Chow said that the growing ageing population in the region would ensure the continuous growth of quality healthcare in various areas, such as hospital services, primary care, senior care, preventive and diagnostic services, rehabilitation, and healthcare technology. Yong anticipated that more care would be delivered outside the hospital over time. “We expect that patient care will be provided by primary care practitioners in the community so that hospitals’ resources can be better utilised for higher acuity care,” he said.
Dr Peter Chow
Singapore’s health tourism industry has many advantages over its Thailand and Malaysian counterparts. Dr Chow highlighted that healthcare travellers considered the quality and transparency of Singapore’s healthcare sector in tandem with a solid regulatory framework as highly significant. “Singapore has also been a destination for immigration and foreign talent seeking employment, and this presents opportunities for Singapore to be recommended to their family or friends in their home countries to come to Singapore for medical treatment,” he added. Yong acknowledged the Ministry of Health’s effective regulations, which he believes have contributed to the country’s strong track record and success rates over the years. He explained that private hospitals were also more accustomed to caring for foreign patients and had other value-added services, such as interpreters and personalised butler services, which can significantly improve a patient’s care experience.
While Singapore experienced its fair share of public health challenges and setbacks in managing the pandemic, the island nation recorded one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates among developed countries. Yong said this was possible due to strict pandemic management protocols implemented consistently across healthcare institutions. “Protocols such as patient and visitor testing regimes, visitor management routine, staff isolation, and personal protective equipment guidelines evolved along with pandemic requirements over time,” he elaborated. Yong credited the early and quick vaccination of healthcare workers and the general public for the low mortality rate. Dr Chow acknowledged that the vaccine rollout was due to the Singaporean government’s proactive measures in securing vaccines early and modifying its public health directives in line with the latest scientific understanding of the virus. “We were able to quickly deploy resources on public, private, and community levels to increase medical capacity in conjunction with the surge in healthcare needs,” he said.
Looking to the future, Singapore is initiating long-term planning to ensure the healthcare system and the health travel sector are resilient enough to ride out another public health emergency. Dr Chow stressed the importance of assessing the actual situation and scientific evidence accordingly. “For example, whilst healthcare providers benefitted from the SARS experience in managing personal protection equipment as well as triage and quarantine processes and systems, these also had to be quickly adapted and changed throughout COVID,” he explained. Yong suggested that temporary structures previously set up to cater to the pandemic surge and hectic workflow conditions should be installed permanently in new healthcare facilities to differentiate between clean and dirty workflow. He also suggested that general workers be temporarily retrained to make up for shortages of healthcare workers.
“Protocols such as patient and visitor testing regimes, visitor management routine, staff isolation, and personal protective equipment guidelines evolved along with pandemic requirements over time,”
Like many other nations, Singapore saw an increase in telemedicine use to monitor patients during the pandemic. Yong believes that the benefits of telemedicine include reduced costs, more straightforward deployment of resources, and digital convenience to patients who face difficulties coming to the hospital. Mount Elizabeth Hospitals are also transitioning to digitalising patient medical records to standardise data integrity and organise data systematically for health analytics and information filing purposes. “Having digital patient records will improve patient care and doctoring experiences as information would flow faster right to your fingertips any time, and critical findings can be acted upon by doctors faster without waiting for the next duty shift,” Yong explained. Currently, the hospital is in a hybrid mode for patient information and is looking forward to a centralised electronic medical record (eMR) system soon as part of IHH’s IT strategy. Dr Chow stated that Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital would also be revamping its eMR system and expanding its digitalisation to include patient registration and admission processes.
Singapore also continues to invest in innovations such as AI, predictive modelling, and novel clinical technologies to strengthen the healthcare system. Yong believes that procuring the latest clinical equipment can improve the quality of medical intervention, such as precision surgery, which can translate to improved patient outcomes.
Recently, the Singapore Health Minister announced the Healthier SG strategy that involves linking each Singaporean to a single family physician to develop personalised health plans and improve preventive care. Dr Chow praised the framework by pointing out that personal family physicians could help the population navigate healthcare needs and ensure cost-effective healthcare decisions. “The challenge will be how to pivot our healthcare and financing system that is currently organised around episodic care to provide longitudinal care,” he said. Yong agrees, adding that a massive transitional policy shift in which both healthcare providers and citizens participate is required but will likely take a few years for the mindset change. This further involves restructuring existing healthcare facilities to include wellness and preventive care services.
“Singapore healthcare holds a strong reputation in quality service and a high concentration of specialists. Its position as an excellent travel hub with transport links to all over the world further complements its accessibility to travellers.”
Farrer Park: Driving innovation and cross industry synergy in medical tourism
With Singapore reopening its borders, Farrer Park Hospital saw a rebound in healthcare travellers seeking consultations and treatment at the hospital.
According to hospital CEO, Dr Timothy Low, the increase is largely due to the lifting of travel restrictions that has enabled medical tourists to consult specialists, undertake treatment, and travel around in an environment that balances appropriate response to COVID outbreaks with preserving the livelihood of the local populace. “This balance has been key for the hospital’s approach to helping potential patients arrange for a seamless experience with the knowledge that we will be responsive to how COVID-19 evolves,” he explained. Dr Low further reiterated that having attentive and professional hospital staff who were mindful of the latest standard operating procedures related to COVID response would assure patients that they could plan for timely consultations with peace of mind.
Dr Timothy Low
“I would say that the prospects are bright in the medium and long term.
Singapore’s high connectivity itself is a boon, and the pandemic has taught us not to take open borders for granted.”
The general view among industry players regarding the long-term prospects for the healthcare sector is largely positive. Dr Low remarked that proper control and testing procedures in international travel monitoring, a high immunisation rate among the population, and social responsibility in observing physical distance and wearing masks boded well for the medical industry’s outlook. “I would say that the prospects are bright in the medium and long term. Singapore’s high connectivity itself is a boon, and the pandemic has taught us not to take open borders for granted,” he added. Dr Low also pointed out how the government’s response to the recent COVID wave caused by the XBB variant included timely reporting of local infections, assessment of the impact of the variant based on existing scientific findings, and the rolling out of vaccination activities at a rapid pace.
Another reason for optimism is that Singapore’s health tourism industry has several advantages over regional competitors such as Thailand and Malaysia. Dr Low emphasised Singapore’s world-class infrastructure that allowed seamless consultation, care, and recovery and synergistic collaboration between medical facilities, specialists in private practice and public institutions, and non-healthcare establishments. “One of the synergies that we are practicing is the “Hospi-tel” model where patients can simultaneously experience five-star accommodation at One Farrer Hotel and consulting a specialist or undergoing treatment at Farrer Park Hospital, providing a convenient and comfortable stay that is ideal for therapy or recovery,” he explained.
Dr Low also reaffirmed the importance of Singapore’s infrastructure that was well regarded in delivering transparency, professionalism, and a high level of patient care which are all benchmarked to international standards. Additionally, Singapore intends to provide more comprehensive options, with start-ups focusing on next-generation solutions, hospitals improving efficiencies to provide better patient care, and technology complementing staffing and supporting procedural and medical objectives.
While Singapore has received international praise for having one of the lowest COVID death rates among developed countries, Dr Low expressed caution given that the pandemic was far from over due to the emergence of new variants. He also said the local medical sector should continue analysing data and studying the effects of long COVID. He further stated that Singapore’s pandemic response could be summarised in two words: vigilance and vaccination. “The former involves implementing strict measures in view of case numbers, ICU admissions, and reported symptoms at any given time, while the latter reflects the calibrated distribution of vaccines and boosters based on susceptibility, availability, and logistical convenience,” he explained.