Private healthcare providers need booster shots from the government in order to help them cope with the dwindling number of medical tourists.
Experts and industry players noted that Singapore’s hospitals are up against stiff competition from their counterparts in the ASEAN. As more Southeast Asian hospitals modernise, the city-state is slowly losing its appeal as a medical tourism hub.
For instance, Indonesian healthcare providers are aggressively investing in new facilities and equipment, said Dr. Beng Teck Liang, Executive Director & Chief Executive Officer,Singapore Medical Group. This trend is among the culprits behind the sharp drop in Indonesian medical tourist arrivals, and has exacerbated the impact of the weak Indonesian rupiah.
“It’s a given. In markets like Indonesia and Vietnam, we’re going to see a progressive improvement in the healthcare sector, which will result in fewer patients heading to Singapore,” Beng said.
Beng noted that the hospital has seen declining numbers of medical tourists in the past couple of years, particularly those from Indonesia. While demand from Vietnamese patients remains strong, Beng believes that the trend of declining arrivals is not likely to be resolved in the near future.
“Indonesian healthcare providers are aggressively investing in new facilities and equipment. I think they are successful in encouraging patients to stay local, particularly now with the use of universal healthcare,” he said.
Beng noted that the private hospitals need to cope with a massive shift in the profile of international patients. He highlights that in the early 1990s, Indonesian patients went to Singapore for even the most basic medical procedures; now, they only head to Singapore for extremely complex cases. As a result, earnings from medical tourism has dropped by as much as 40% in some cases. Beng stressed that private hospitals need more government support in order to stay ahead of their aggressive regional competitors.
“We’ve actually had many conversations with people like the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) as to how they can help us, but I think their hands are tied as well. We want to have a dialogue with the Ministry of Health, but so far this has proven to be more challenging to have those conversations,” he said.
Beng noted that the Singapore Tourism Board has done its level best to help private healthcare players, but the regulator cannot do much about the competition that private providers face from public hospitals. Overseas patients are also crucial to the earnings of public hospitals, and Beng reckons that it is unlikely that government-owned players will stop accepting foreign patients in order to give way to private providers.
“There comes the dilemma. We do want to kick-start something; STB has encouraged the private sector to band together to grow medical tourism ourselves with some of their support. But our view is, what’s the point? We’re going to grow private sector medical tourism, but who’s going to benefit? So we really want to have that conversation with the government to understand exactly what’s going on from their viewpoint,” he said.
Another problem is the huge capacity from the public sector which is about to enter the market. Public hospitals have expanded aggressively and hired plenty of foreign doctors, which will further put a strain on private operators. “With this extra capacity, at some point in time, I think the government is going to realise that the only way to sustain some of these hospitals is again to open up medical tourism. So again our question is: Why are we investing to build? We think in the next three or five years, the government is going to come back and say, let’s all get together and promote Singapore medicine together.”
Lawrence Patrick, Chief Executive Officer of Johns Hopkins Singapore Medical Group, concurred with this sentiment. “I think the dilemma here is that for a number of years the government told the private sector: If you build it, they will come and we will partner. But now, in a couple of years, they’re not going to need that capacity in the private sector and we’re going to see consolidations again,” he said.