New healthcare system to be set up for migrant workers in S'pore; 6 medical centres planned

Under the new system, the medical centres will be the first-line outpatient facility for migrant workers, and will also be used for public health surveillance. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - From as early as November, a new system will be rolled out to provide primary healthcare for migrant workers here and reduce the risks of future disease outbreaks through active surveillance.

Tender documents published by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Monday (June 28) show that the new system will deliver healthcare in six geographical sectors, with each sector housing at least 40,000 migrant workers both in and out of dormitories. Healthcare providers may submit proposals to operate in one or more sectors.

Each of the six sectors will be anchored by a medical centre for migrant workers, complemented by onsite medical centres in three large dormitories, at least two mobile clinical teams, as well as round-the-clock telemedicine consultations and ambulance and special transport services.

One of the sectors, covering areas in the west like Bukit Batok and Jurong, will have its healthcare centre operated by a non-governmental organisation, which documents did not name. The sector has about 54,800 workers, of whom more than 82 per cent live in dorms.

Tender documents said that healthcare should be provided in a way that "minimises any cultural and language barriers to access healthcare services". Steps to ensure this may include having doctors onsite from workers' home countries and having multilingual translation capabilities.

Providers are also to deliver healthcare in a manner that keeps migrant workers' out-of-pocket expenses low.

Under the new system, each of the six medical centres for migrant workers will be the first-line outpatient facility for migrant workers. They are to be equipped with X-ray machines to facilitate diagnoses.

The six centres will also be used for public health surveillance, and equipped with testing capabilities and isolation facilities to prevent the spread of diseases like Covid-19. They will be staffed by at least one doctor, two nurses, two administrative support staff and a radiographer.

Onsite medical centres, which will be located in three large dormitories for a start - PPT Lodge 1B, Sungei Tengah Lodge and Tuas View Dormitory - will have similar capabilities to the medical centres but without X-rays.

Meanwhile, mobile clinical teams will be activated by MOM in the event of an emerging outbreak, where they will help execute public health interventions like swabbing and contact tracing.

Telemedicine consultations will cater to non-urgent needs like mental health counselling or medication refills, which will be delivered.

The new healthcare system for migrant workers follows the roll out of regional medical centres for workers since Aug 28 last year. There are currently 13, opened after all dormitories were cleared of Covid-19 on Aug 19 last year.

Tender documents did not state how or if these centres will fit into MOM's plans come November. The Straits Times has contacted MOM for more information.

As at Tuesday (June 29), about 87 per cent of Singapore's 62,563 Covid-19 patients were dorm residents, although no new cases have been detected in dorms in the past two weeks.

Dr Jeremy Lim, vice-chairman of migrant worker non-profit HealthServe, said it is not able to independently provide the services that MOM is asking for.

However, several private healthcare groups have approached HealthServe to ask if it would be willing to be part of a consortium for the tender.

"We have not made any commitments. We are guided by what is in the best interest of migrant workers," he said. "The question is, can we be useful to the ecosystem and workers by supporting one of the private health care groups?"

Dr Lim, who is also an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said MOM's request for proposal has a strong element of proactive care, including preventive health screenings and education for workers. "If you read between the lines, it also emphasises the need for care to be coordinated," he added.

Infectious disease physician Ling Li Min said the pandemic showed the healthcare needs of migrant workers had been neglected, with many suffering from chronic conditions not seeking treatment here as costs are prohibitive.

Dr Ling said it will be important for doctors running the new medical centres to work together across sectors to recognise impending outbreaks.

Dr Lim said any future outbreaks should also be easier to manage because interactions between workers and healthcare providers should be limited to more specific geographic areas.

Mr Johnathan Cheah, managing director of S11 Capital Investments, which operates PPT Lodge 1B, said that the current medical centre at the dormitory in Punggol has served its residents well.

"The biggest benefit is that the centre ensures early detection and isolation of those with acute respiratory symptoms and there is no need for the worker to go into the community," he said.

Note: This story has been updated for clarity.

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