Agents not taking well to SingaporeMedicine(1)

<>Singapore travel agents are finding it hard to swallow SingaporeMedicine, a multi-agency government effort that includes the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to promote Singapore as a leading healthcare services destination.

Allan Tsang, chairman - inbound of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) said that SingaporeMedicine benefits the healthcare providers such as the hospitals, which stand to make higher margins.</>

However, he said the costs of travel agents handling queries linked to healthcare services in Singapore outweigh the yields earned.

Tsang said, "Basically, we did try to do the programme in Indonesia but it does not justify our efforts such as the process of making travel arrangements and answering queries. We cannot do this business as when we do the yields are very low.

"Instead of us spending time promoting, it is better that the client goes to the supplier direct.

"This is like the hip-hop pass where there are a lot of queries but no business materialises."

Then there are other travel agents who do not quite agree with the principal of linking healthcare services and tourism.

Matthew Pillay, vice president marketing, Uniglobal Holidays comments, "medical considerations should not be linked to tourism and should not be used to boost tourism." He added that these were "two different things altogether."

However he said he saw medical tourism as a niche market and not one that would bring in the masses, "the way STB promotes it that leisure tourists also go for a check-up as part of their holiday here.

"But it should not be used as a tool to bring in tourism."

And Pillay pointed out that travel agents could benefit from co-ordinating the travel arrangements of the patients and their companions.

Other travel agencies interviewed were also lukewarm to the idea of selling health tourism.

Laurence Lee, director, Hong Thai Travel Services said, "Health tourism is a source of revenue but not to a great extent. It is more like a niche market as the spas are."

'It all depends on what the health tourists want and for us to provide the services and products, it's very subjective for example whether they want basic health-screening or have another request.

"We have tie-ups with overseas agents and it depends on them whether they want to promote heath tourism and it depends on the markets mostly we see Indonesians.

"Personally, I believe the future market will be from China, they have older people with more expenditure. In a few years time, they will come for health checks."

Lee further commented, "I believe we are facing competition from Thailand and Malaysia and medical tourists go there as they are cheaper, the STB is trying to educate them. Service wise we are okay."

"We need to find a way to locate the class of middle-aged tourists with higher income who are concerned about their health."

And for some the opportunities posed by health tourism has not made an impact said Jeron Ong, sales manager from Orient Explorer, "We have not looked at health tourism as we focus more on conventions and incentives."

<>Nonetheless looking at Singapore's 'bill of health', the Republic has been a leading choice as a healthcare services destination for the region, with more than 200, 000 international patients seeking medical treatment here.

Singapore is taking the health of global citizens seriously and STB is actively driving the growth of international patients.

This may prove to be an astute move considering Asia's booming population, expected to grow from 3.2 billion in 2002 to 5.6 billion in 2050 and the accompanying rise in life expectancy and economic affluence, demand for quality healthcare is set to surge in Asia.

Dr Chan Tat Hon, assistant chief executive (International Programme) and programme director (Healthcare Services), STB said, "Singapore with its well-established reputation for medical excellence, is poised to tap on this escalating demand to entrench itself as a regional healthcare hub featuring world-class facilities and expertise."

Hence, Chan states heath tourism is a viable tourism product, "there is great potential in developing Singapore's heathcare services as a viable reason for visitors to come to Singapore."

Target markets include Indonesia and Malaysia, which are currently the biggest and Singapore Medicine, launched last October aims to support local healthcare providers in maintaining this lead. Emerging markets of Indochina, South-east Asia, China, South Asia and the Middle East are also being targeted.

Dr Chan said, "For new markets, we will work with our healthcare providers to create awareness of Singapore's healthcare services through various marketing initiatives.

"This would be through our collaterals, website, roadshows and familiarization trips for the media or foreign doctors to visit Singapore's healthcare services."

He added that Singapore is able to position itself as "the preferred healthcare destination" due to three areas: the Republic is renowned for its medical specialties in cardiology (heart), opthamology (eye) and oncology (cancer), status as a world-class biomedical hub in Asia and a "hotspot for medical professionals," who are drawn here to practise.

Singapore also receives heightened exposure, Chan said when it hosts medical conferences, symposiums and training seminars. Such meetings include the Asian/Pacific Congress of Cardiology (APCC); the Asian Australasian Congress of Neurological Surgery and TransplantAsia 2004.

Hence with all this, how would it contribute to the health of Singapore's tourism?

STB's statistics reveal that three percent of all visitors to Singapore are for medical purposes. Apart from healthcare, half of the expenditure by medical visitors is on accommodation, transport, F&B, shopping and non-medical aspects of their stay. A patient also has two companions who also contribute to tourism spending.

In 2001, the number of visitors to Singapore seeking medical treatment was 189, 730 and in 2002 the figure rose to 211, 600 an increase of 11 percent. In 2003, the world was hit with the SARS epidemic with economic, social and political ramifications. Singapore's health authorities moved at a feverish pace to control this dire situation and in the process demonstrated the excellence of the healthcare services and dedication of its health workers.

<>The "efficient and transparent manner in which the Singapore government dealt with the SARS crisis" said Chan earned the respect of the international community and does "give them peace of mind that they are in good hands when they use Singapore's healthcare services."

Hence when detractors of Singapore label it as "too sterile, organised and orderly" this has evolved into a trump card for Singapore's health tourism.

The island however is not one to rest on its laurels and plans to attract one million international patients annually to Singapore for healthcare services by the year 2012.

This could potentially generate some S$2.6 billion (US$1.5 billion) for the economy, adding an approximate one percent to Singapore's GDP. It also has the potential of creating 13,000 new jobs of which a high proportion are for medical, nursing and paramedical professions.

The NTO is working in close co-operation with the healthcare providers and local travel agents to bring these targets to fruition.

Chan said, "Visitors coming to Singapore consume a whole spectrum of healthcare services. These range from wellness and primary healthcare such as medical spa and health screening to secondary, tertiary and quaternary care such as surgery and transplants.

"For all these services, there is great potential for them to be packaged with airfare, accommodation, F&B and leisure activities. Travel agents play a major role in ensuring that healthcare visitors as well as their families and relatives who often accompany them can have a seamless and comfortable experience while in Singapore."

Raffles Medical Group has seen a steady increase in foreign patient load of 30 percent currently at Raffles Hospital, a rise of five percent over last year.

And both Raffles and Parkway Healthcare Group say they work in close co-operation with travel agents when dealing with foreign patients.

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