In a ST report today (7 Oct), the Health Ministry (MOH) said that only a small proportion of public hospitals’ patients are foreigners brought in via contracted overseas agents.

MOH added that the proportion of foreigners among all inpatient and day surgery patients was 1.5 per cent last year. The figure was 2.4 per cent in 2008.

The issue of public hospitals using overseas agents to look for foreign patients came into light when news emerged last week that MOH has instructed all public hospitals to terminate their contracts with the foreign agencies.

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 agencies include Changi General Hospital (CGH), Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and National University Hospital (NUH).

Khaw said public hospitals “do not engage in overseas marketing”

However, this latest instruction from MOH to the public hospitals not to “actively market themselves to foreign patients” appears to be different from what then health minister Khaw Boon Wan told the public in 2010. At the time, Khaw assured the public that public hospitals “do not engage in overseas marketing”.

In reply to an MP’s question in Feb 2010, Khaw said in Parliament:

The public hospitals do not engage in overseas marketing. Their mission and priority are towards local residents, and especially those in the lower income group.

Public hospitals do treat foreign patients, as there is no reason to reject them. Given our high standard of care and competitive prices, we attract a significant number of foreign patients who come here deliberately for treatment. But they form less than 3% of our total patient load.

Singapore does strive to preserve its role as a regional medical hub, an initiative which we code-named “SingaporeMedicine”, and it is spearheaded by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). As a major provider of tertiary healthcare services, Ministry of Health lends its support to the promotion of SingaporeMedicine. This is because increasingly foreign patients come here for sophisticated treatment in such tertiary care disciplines. This is an area which Singapore, despite our higher cost, has an edge over our regional competitors. While we have many competent specialists in the private sector, many are in the public sector.

Khaw was saying that the public hospitals did not “engage in overseas marketing” directly.

However, he failed to disclose that in fact, some of these public hospitals have already been engaging in overseas marketing indirectly through the appointment of foreign agents.

One good example is Jakarta-based agency PT HCM Medika, which has been referring Indonesian patients to Singapore hospitals in the past 11 years. On its website, it said that HCM Medika is an official representative of the following hospitals in Singapore, including the public ones:

It also said that the agency was established in 2007 to “help Indonesians to get great quality medical care from government hospital in Singapore”. In other words, HCM Medika started its business as an agent to Singapore’s public hospitals 11 years ago. Their services are provided free-of-charge to the Indonesian patients as they get their fees from the hospitals.

So, from information gathered from HCM Medika’s website, it can be seen that when Khaw was assuring the public in 2010 that public hospitals did not engage in overseas marketing, some were in fact already engaging HCM Medika to look for Indonesian patients.

The public hospitals may not necessary have participated in overseas marketing directly but certainly their foreign agencies like HCM Medika do.

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