Monday 7 November 2011

More patients medically evacuated to Singapore

Companies, hospitals here see up to 30% growth in demand for such services
By Melissa Pang, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2011

At 4pm last Wednesday, Singapore-based air ambulance service Express Medical Assistance received an urgent call from Indonesia.

A 90-year-old woman from Medan had pneu-monia and her family wanted Singapore doctors to treat her, the caller said.

By 10pm the same day, she had been flown out of Medan and warded in a private Singapore hospital.

Before that, there was a flurry of phone calls to assess her health condition, secure a hospital bed and sort out paperwork for the flight.

It was all in a day's work for Express Medical Assistance. More foreigners, like this woman from Medan, are being medically evacuated here.

There are at least five medical evacuation services here. A number have their own air ambulances.

These companies, and hospitals here, have observed year-on-year growth of between 5 and 30 per cent in demand for such services.

Dr Tan Seow Hwee, Parkway Shenton's medical director, said its medical evacuation service gets about four cases a month now on average - an increase of about 20 per cent over the past year.

Apart from the well-heeled who can afford such a service, the increase in tourism and the number of expatriates working overseas in places like China and South-east Asia also fuel demand.

Most medical evacuations still originate from Indonesia, Dr Tan said.

But among those that use the service are many multinational companies with headquarters in Singapore which have sent their staff to places like Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and China.

'Should the need arise, they usually prefer to have their staff back here for medical treatment,' he said.

Raffles Hospital said it has seen a more than 20 per cent year-on-year increase in medical evacuation cases.

These largely involve residents and expatriates from regional countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia.

Given this demand boom, companies like Express Medical Assistance and Flying Doctors Asia have expanded their fleet of aircraft.

Dr Winston Jong, medical director of Express Medical Assistance, said the company bought its first air ambulance in 2006, and later added one more - to cater to the average of 25 cases it now handles monthly.

Flying Doctors Asia is expanding its fleet from just two planes, to include its fifth by year-end.

Its chief executive officer, Mr Prithpal Singh, said the company now handles one to two flights daily, up from one every three to four days when it started.

But regional hospitals and air ambulance services are emerging as new rivals, even as the number of evacuations of medical tourists to Singapore continue to grow.

Companies that act for corporations and insurance firms notice a preference for hospitals in Bangkok, Penang and Kuala Lumpur, where medical costs are lower.

Said Dr Charles Johnson, medical director of Hope Medflight Asia: 'Health-care capabilities in Malaysia and Thailand have grown significantly and become very established.

'The exchange rates also work in their favour.'

Dr David Teo, medical director of International SOS, which has mainly corporate clients, said it has a list of audited hospitals worldwide. Its experts can advise clients on the level of care a hospital in a region can offer, and costs.

Dr Jong said tighter visa restrictions here can hamper a deal. He cited the case of an Indian woman who could not get a visa in time to come to Singapore. The patient went to Bangkok instead.

Such air evacuations are not cheap, with the fee depending on the level of medical care needed, the flight distance, and the cost of chartering a private plane.

An evacuation, say, from Bali, that requires a normal level of medical care onboard, can cost about $40,000. This sum does not include medical fees when the patient arrives here.

Still, despite the regional competition, Dr Jong said Singapore's solid reputation helps it keep its edge.

Mr Hendro Yuliandra, marketing and operational manager of Indonesia-based Espro Medical, agreed.

He said, 'The very wealthy in Indonesia will pay top dollar to get treatment in Singapore. Hospitals and doctors in Singapore are famous for their good quality. Word also gets around on their positive experiences here.'

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