The Ministry of Health reported late last week that it has instructed all Government hospitals to terminate their contracts with foreign agencies that refer patients from abroad to local hospitals.
According to news reports, foreign agents work with local hospitals to refer foreigners to seek treatment in Singapore. These agents, who assist potential patients to find a local hospital and help to make specialist appointments, earn a hefty cut of up to 8 per cent of a foreign patient’s hospital bill as a commission fee for their services.
Some of the Government hospitals here that have used such foreign agencies include the Changi General Hospital, Singapore General Hospital and the National University Hospital.
One of the largest such foreign agencies is based in Jakarta, Indonesia and has been referring thousands of foreign patients to Singapore public hospitals for over a decade, boasting that it is an “official partner” of several government hospitals here.
While thousands of foreigners came to Singapore as part of this “medical tourism,” some Singaporeans were left without a bed or even a washroom during the public hospital bed crunch across Singapore, in recent years.
In one notable case in 2014, CGH pitched tents on its hospital grounds to accommodate patients after reaching 100 per cent bed occupancy and despite renting wards from private hospitals to hold patients.
Speaking to reporters, one local doctor slammed the practice of getting foreign agencies to refer patients from abroad for a fee. Consultant neurosurgeon of International Neuro Associates, Dr Keith Goh said, “This practice of giving a ‘referral fee’ to ‘medical agents’ is unethical,” as he noted that an 8 per cent cut of a hospital bill of $500,000 would amount to $40,000, “which is more than the annual salary of a staff nurse.”
After nearly a decade of not banning such practices, MOH has now told hospitals that they are no longer allowed to “actively market themselves to foreign patients” since the priority of public healthcare institutions must be to serve Singaporeans’ healthcare needs.
MOH’s decision comes four years after then ruling party parliamentarian Inderjit Singh said in Parliament that medical tourism should be left to private hospitals and that Government hospitals should focus on serving Singapore residents.
Referring to MOH’s recent instructions to Government hospitals, Singh – who left the ruling party ahead of the 2015 General Election – said:
“I was glad to read today’s ST headlines that reported that MOH has decided to now restrict medical tourism in government restructured hospitals. I highlighted this in my FB post in 2014 which I have extracted here. Medical Tourism should be left to private hospitals only and government hospitals should serve only our resident population.”
In 2014, the then-Ang Mo Kio GRC MP had expressed his shock over the fact that Government hospitals openly promoted medical tourism even at the height of the bed crunch:
“Take the case of the bed crunch at hospitals earlier this year. With such disequilibrium, why then promote medical tourism for government restructured hospitals? I was shocked to discover last year that all our government restructured hospitals are involved in promoting medical tourism around the region. Shouldn’t the services in our government restructured be for Singaporeans and residents first? That is one example of poor planning and complacency that bed demand will never exceed supply.”