Rein in private sector charges to revive S’pore as medical tourism hub


Edmund Khoo Kim Hock

Published: 4:00 AM, January 3, 2017

Owing to Singapore’s lack of natural tourist attractions, I agree that we need to build more world-class entertainment venues and host international events and competitions to attract tourists (“S’pore must step up to compete for tourist dollars”, Dec 28).

Visitors cannot be drawn here for shopping due to the strong Singapore dollar, and expensive goods can be purchased in their home countries or abroad for far less.

Our Government has the funds to build tourist attractions in partnership with the private sector to reinvent the Lion City as a top draw in the region. However, we must learn from past mistakes.

Medical tourism was once seen as a potential key driver of our economy, but it has been increasingly difficult for Singapore to maintain its position as the leading medical hub in South-east Asia, owing to cost issues. This is aggravated by the substantially stronger Singapore dollar in relation to other regional currencies.

There continues to be a lack of transparency when it comes to private hospital fees, which routinely contain a myriad of hidden charges in inpatient bills. To compound matters, the absence of fee guidelines for medical practitioners adds to heightened concerns of unanticipated costs resulting from complications and overtreatment. Foreign patients are also put off by the costly accommodation and transport here.

Some private hospitals in Singapore attempt to fix the unpredictability of bills by offering fixed price surgical packages for straightforward procedures. However, such initiatives have failed since medical tourists, by and large, do not travel overseas to consult a highly skilled and experienced specialist unless their condition is complicated.

Bundled priced packages are no more than a marketing gimmick to attract patients. The fixed charges usually exclude room or ward fees and medical supplies outside of the inclusion list that surgeons may require for less than straightforward procedures.

As a result, many patients will end up paying above and beyond the published rates owing to complications, utilising items not listed under standard consumables or for additional days’ stay because the patient is deemed unfit for discharge by the doctor.

If the Government had taken an active role in reining in costs and taking private hospitals to task for overcharging and over-utilisation of services, the medical hospitality sector in Singapore may have remained bullish.

Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and India have invested a lot of money into improving their healthcare capabilities, infrastructure and services. As a result, the incentives for seeking treatment in the Republic have diminished.

Singapore’s long-term prospects as a medical hub can be revived, given the availability of high quality medical staff and equipment, if the Government were to increase oversight of private sector charges.