Singapore private healthcare group Thomson Medical is building a general hospital in Johor Baru in the hope that lower prices there will get Singaporeans crossing the Causeway for their medical treatment.
It is part of a mega-healthcare hub that wants to take care of patients from cradle to grave. The project will also incorporate a school for would-be doctors and nurses from the Republic.
Getting Singaporeans to shuttle between the two cities is not new - already, they are living in nursing homes in Johor Baru. Parkway Health's 300-bed Gleneagles Medini hospital also opened there last December.
But the endeavour by Thomson is one of the most ambitious to date. At 11ha, the project is a quarter the size of Singapore General Hospital's 43ha Outram campus.
When fully completed in 10 years, it will have its own general and community hospitals, specialist centre and a medical school with research facilities. It will also incorporate residences for the elderly such as those undergoing rehabilitation.
The site is located a five-minute drive from the Causeway.
When The Straits Times visited this month, most of the land was boarded up but still empty. What is already up is a retail pharmacy which officially opened on Dec 10.
Thomson chairman Roy Quek hopes the new facilities will help reduce the load on Singapore's crowded hospitals and eventually add to the number of doctors and nurses familiar with the local healthcare landscape.
"I'm basically trying to build a private-sector version of the public healthcare clusters," he told The Straits Times, referring to the groups that run Singapore's various general hospitals, polyclinics and other healthcare services.
"I think in the private sector we are able to move a bit faster, respond a bit more quickly. It is very hard for the public sector to handle this load on its own, but we can make it such that the load gets rebalanced," added Mr Quek, who used to be deputy secretary of health policy at the Ministry of Health (MOH).
On why Thomson did not build in Singapore, he said it was due to limited land here.
Gone are the days when you build a standalone general hospital. In Singapore, based on the current model of care, we are always playing catch-up. Instead, healthcare needs to be integrated.
THOMSON MEDICAL CHAIRMAN ROY QUEK (main photo, at the project's site in Johor Baru), who said he is trying to build a private-sector version of the public healthcare clusters.
Work will start on the main hospital - designed to house up to 500 beds - by next year. It is expected to be up and running by 2020, with the community hospital and medical school to follow.
Treatment there will be "very competitively priced" compared with Singapore, said Mr Quek, citing how products sold at the pharmacy are on average about 30 per cent cheaper than in Singapore.
Singapore patients would be able to use their Medisave to fund treatment if MOH gives the green light.
Healthcare adviser Jean-Luc Butel, president of consultancy firm K8 Global, said that while some people might be turned off by shuttling between Singapore and Johor Baru, the new developments will appeal to those who are very cost-conscious or fed up with public hospitals here.
"The delivery system in Singapore is pretty much at capacity, and this (new project) could be a solution, depending on the quality of care," he said.
"A lot of people may be frustrated at issues they face in Singapore."
Thomson's newest project is estimated to cost RM5 billion (S$1.6 billion), with the general hospital and adjoining medical centre alone costing around RM1.3 billion.
The healthcare group is controlled by billionaire Peter Lim, who bought over the company in 2010.
Mr Quek has also signed an agreement with well-known Irish medical school University College Dublin, and is in talks with other universities to set up the medical school.
Its graduates will be mainly nurses and allied health professionals - although there will also be a handful of doctors - to meet Singapore's most pressing needs.
Healthcare consultant Jeremy Lim noted that Singapore's doctor- and nurse-to-population ratios stand at 2.3 and seven per 1,000 people, which are lower than those in most other developed countries.
"We continue to rely a lot on foreign-trained nurses," said Dr Lim, a partner in management consulting firm Oliver Wyman's global health practice, who was hired by Thomson as a consultant.
Where the medical school is concerned, however, the proof will be very much in the pudding.
"It takes years to build credibility, and by the time the first graduate comes out it could be six or seven years," Mr Butel said.
"Of course, tying up with a big name is the first step, but you have to see the final product as well."