Singapore 'losing medical tourists to neighbours'

Private healthcare provider IHH Healthcare, which owns Mount Elizabeth Novena, operates in Vietnam, Brunei and China.
Private healthcare provider IHH Healthcare, which owns Mount Elizabeth Novena, operates in Vietnam, Brunei and China. ST FILE PHOTO

Singapore is finding it harder to retain its title as the region's top medical tourism hub as patients eye cheaper options elsewhere while government support for the sector wanes, a new report has warned.

It also noted that the challenges will only intensify as improved standards in neighbouring cities test the price premiums here, which are further exacerbated by a strong Singapore dollar.

A heart bypass in Singapore costs 41 per cent more than in Thailand and 106 per cent more than in Malaysia, BMI Research found.

While higher prices here have traditionally been justified by the high level of treatment offered - Singapore is ranked sixth out of 191 countries globally and the best in Asia by the World Health Organisation - this gap in standards has begun to close.

Private healthcare providers in Thailand are gaining international accreditation and private hospitals such as Bangkok's Bumrungrad International have rapidly expanded into specialist services - once a key competitive advantage for Singapore, said the report out yesterday.

Meanwhile, the expansion of private healthcare providers overseas has also lowered the need for medical tourism, while reducing these firms' own need to market their services in Singapore.

Raffles Medical Group, one of the largest private operators here, has three medical centres in Hong Kong and one in Shanghai. Malaysian firm IHH Healthcare, which owns major hospitals including Mount Elizabeth Novena and Gleneagles Singapore, operates in Vietnam, Brunei and China.

The report noted that the Singapore dollar has risen 24 per cent against the Indonesian rupiah over the past two years.

"This has had significant ramifications as the Indonesian market accounted for 56 per cent of total medical tourism revenues in 2013," it said.

Revenue from Indonesian medical tourists in 2013 was $463 million, down 38 per cent from 2012, according to the Singapore Tourism Board's (STB) latest data.

Total medical tourism receipts came in at $832 million in 2013, a fall of 25 per cent from 2012.

Growth has also been limited as government support for the industry once identified as a potential driver of the economy has cooled, said the report. SingaporeMedicine - a government-industry initiative launched in 2003 to promote Singapore as a world- class healthcare destination - now has its online presence redirected to the STB website.

In contrast, governments in competing hubs have become more "aggressive" in attracting medical tourists, said the report.

Last month, the Malaysian authorities disclosed a 30 per cent discount on Malaysia Airlines airfares for Bangladeshi patients seeking treatment in the country.

The sum of these factors puts multinational drug-makers in Singapore at risk, "as medical tourism has been a strong source of demand for high-value medicines", the report said.

Follow ST on LinkedIn and stay updated on the latest career news, insights and more.