It was reported in the news on Sunday (30 Sep) that the Health Ministry (MOH) has instructed all public hospitals to terminate their contracts with foreign agents who refer foreign patients from overseas to the hospitals.
MOH said that the priority of public healthcare institutions is to serve Singaporeans’ healthcare needs. They “are not allowed to actively market themselves to foreign patients”. Some of the public hospitals which were named in the news to have used such foreign agents include Changi General Hospital (CGH), Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and National University Hospital (NUH).
The promotion of medical tourism by the public hospitals, in fact, can be traced to then Malaysia-born Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan. In Oct 2003, Khaw gave a very positive speech at the launch of "SingaporeMedicine" to promote medical tourism in Singapore.
At the time he said, "Singapore does attract large numbers of foreign patients. Last year (2002), more than 200,000 foreigners came here for medical services. That is not a small number."
"But our dream was much more ambitious. With 500 million people in ASEAN, just 10% alone would be a sizeable volume for our healthcare sector. And now with tens of millions in China and India entering the middle class every year, we can be even more ambitious," he added.
"The Economic Review Committee reaffirmed this ambition. It projected a target of serving 1 million foreign patients annually by 2012, 5 times the current number. This is a good stretched target and within our grasp."
He said that to realise the dream of becoming a regional medical hub, it requires "a concerted effort, by all sectors, public or private, and by all relevant agencies: MOH, MTI, NUS, EDB, STB, IE Singapore".
"SingaporeMedicine that we are launching today shall be the rallying point and a powerful symbol of our collective will and commitment towards this ambition," he said.
"In three specialties alone, heart, eye and cancer, I see tens of millions of middle-class patients within a 7-hour flying radius, waiting to be served. If they can be attracted here, they will keep us all very busy. But we must collaborate more, cut out unnecessary cost, further enhance reliability and make it easy for the patients to seek treatment here."
He even advocated hiring more foreign specialists into Singapore to cater to the increase in number of patients.
However, Khaw appears to have miscalculated and that at one time, there wasn't enough hospital beds to serve everyone. Also, as Singaporeans get older, they would tend to stay longer in hospitals.
Mayo of the East
In the speech, Khaw was adamant to make Singapore a regional medical hub. In this regard, he roped in Philip Yeo, the Singapore sales and marketing man.
"I have asked Mr Philip Yeo to champion this priority. I can think of no better champion: he is highly focused and he delivers results," Khaw said.
He wanted Philip Yeo to help build Singapore into the famous US Mayo Clinic "of the East", but without the high cost.
"In the 1950s, the Japanese car-makers went to Detroit to learn the art and science of car making. They returned to make excellent cars at much lower cost and conquered the world market. Can we do the same for healthcare services? Can we be the Mayo of the East without the high cost? Can we be a centre of learning, where (foreign) doctors and nurses from the region apply to work in our hospitals because we offer excellent opportunities for research, education and patient care?" he asked.
"As we build and nurture the culture of learning and sharing, we will see a growing exchange of talent, in and out of the country. This is my dream for Singapore as the regional medical hub, where regional doctors and nurses compete to work here to learn, and where international patients seek us out for care and treatment."
In other words, Khaw is all for more foreign doctors, foreign nurses and foreign patients to come to Singapore.
"It requires us to compete within, while partnering with the doctors in the region and work as one to conquer the world," he said.
Finally, he exhorted Philip Yeo, "Mr Philip Yeo, as Commander of the ship, that is your mission. May the Force be with you."