Medical tourism numbers fall as costs rise

Medical tourism numbers fall, as Singapore is one of the most expensive places in the world. While new markets such as Myanmar and Bangladesh are developing, numbers are growing slower than losses of medical tourists from the traditional markets.

Singapore has become one of the most expensive places to live or visit in the world. As costs of treatment, accommodation and daily living keep on increasing, the numbers of tourists and medical tourists keeps falling.

Singapore was an early leader in medical tourism but in the last five years have been losing customers to rivals. The country originally justifies high prices as it could offers services that rivals could not. Rivals have caught up with technology while inflation and medical inflation have spiralled out of control.

Singapore depended on business from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – but customers are going elsewhere for much lower prices. While new markets such as Myanmar and Bangladesh are developing, numbers are growing slower than losses of medical tourists from the traditional markets – and numbers from newer markets such as Russia have fallen too.

Rising cost is seen as a key factor deterring foreign patients from seeking treatment. This is exacerbated by the relatively stronger Singapore dollar, in relation to other regional currencies.

A heart bypass in Singapore costs 40% more than in Thailand and double the price in Malaysia. Local hospitals have gained a reputation for quoting reasonable prices but charging patients much more by adding costs for complications and many non-surgical charges. Coupled with high transport and accommodation costs, medical tourists have been put off.

According to the Singapore Tourism Board, medical receipts grew from S$777 million in 2009 to peak at S$1.11 billion in 2012, before dropping 25 % to S$832 million in 2013. Local hospitals report a drop in business in 2014 and further in 2015.In the boom years authorities issued numbers and revenue figures quickly, but are now reluctant to divulge any on 2014 or 2015. They are struggling to work out how to stop the freefall in tourism and medical tourism numbers.

Malaysia and Indonesia were once source countries, but healthcare expansion locally means fewer need to travel to Singapore.

David McKeering of PwC Southeast Asia says, “Specialist services were previously a strong selling point for Singapore, but with more international providers branching into this area, this is no longer such a compelling competitive advantage. Singapore needs to add certainty to prices by packaging”. But if the real prices are known in advance, Singapore may get even fewer medical tourists.

Local hospitals are increasingly looking at expanding overseas into countries that used to send patients to Singapore. Raffles Medical Group is expanding into China and Vietnam as the company aims for its overseas operations to contribute more than half of total revenue as soon as possible.