Having more doctors and nurses does not automatically lead to better-quality healthcare or better outcomes, said Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat.
He made the point yesterday when replying to Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, who had said he was concerned that Singapore's ratios of doctors and nurses to population are closer to those of Taiwan and Hong Kong rather than to those of the developed OECD countries.
The two Asian economies suffer a shortage of doctors and nurses.
Mr Perera had raised the issue when he asked about the Health Ministry's plans to improve the two ratios in the next five years.
He also wanted to know if the ministry had "fallback options" if it could not meet its target to improve the two ratios.
In responding, Mr Chee reminded Mr Perera that he had given the numbers at the January parliamentary sitting, in response to a question from the opposition NCMP.
In 2014, Singapore had 21 doctors and 69 nurses per 10,000 people.
KEEPING A FEW STEPS AHEAD
We always plan ahead, we always anticipate... we build ahead of demand, we deal with the situation before the problem emerges.
MR CHEE HONG TAT, Minister of State for Health.
In comparison, it was 18 doctors in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and 66 nurses in Hong Kong and 60 in Taiwan.
The ratios are just "broad comparisons" as healthcare needs and practices differ, he noted. Also, the OECD countries "don't necessarily have better health outcomes than Singapore".
Mr Chee also said Singapore is on track in its recruitment of 20,000 healthcare workers between 2011 and 2020.
Mr Perera asked if the hiring was because current numbers "are not really where they should be".
No, it is to meet future demand as the population ages, Mr Chee said. "We always plan ahead, we always anticipate... we build ahead of demand, we deal with the situation before the problem emerges.''
He, however, warned that beyond 2020, "Singapore will face an increase in projected healthcare demand and a smaller local workforce due to our ageing population".
Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) said his residents have told him that local language, culture and nuances were important, and asked how the ministry was going to maintain "a strong Singapore core" in healthcare.
Mr Chee said the ministry is working with hospitals, healthcare institutions and unions to look at ways to improve the work environment so that healthcare workers can work till a later age.
It is also looking at funding the training of mid-career professionals who want to be healthcare workers and giving them training allowances during their studies to help defray their living expenses, he added.
The ministry had also given 630 pre-employment grants, by March last year, to Singaporeans studying medicine and dentistry overseas. They have to return to work here.
In his reply to Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC), Mr Chee noted the recent opening of Ng Teng Fong General Hospital and Yishun Community Hospital to meet demand. And in the next few years, general hospitals will open in Sengkang and Woodlands. "So we do plan ahead and build ahead.