A great place to get sick

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Every Indonesian whose income and lifestyle is above the subsistence level is aware that our closest neighbor and nearest foreign country, Singapore, is the place to go for a holiday or for a quick weekend excursion for shopping and dining. Every expat knows that Singapore is where you spend your periodic exiles while you jump through the Indonesian bureaucratic visa hoops; most of us are nearly as familiar with Singapore as we are with Jakarta. Something else every Indonesian, citizen and expat resident alike, knows is that Singapore is the place to go for medical care.

It is true that with diligence and research, high quality medical care can be found in Indonesia, or at least in Jakarta. It is also true that the quality is spotty at best, and can be execrable at worst. Even in the best places there are bureaucratic hurdles to jump, bribes to be paid, supply shortages, possibilities of counterfeit or diluted drugs, etc. etc. The wise money goes elsewhere for life saving, or even enhancing medical care. And the destination of choice is Singapore.

To be perfectly fair however, Singapore‘s allure as a medical treatment destination is not only dependent upon Indonesia‘s less than sterling medical reputation. Attracting, as it does, medical tourists from all over the world, Singapore has earned its reputation on its own merits. Singaporean hospital rooms are occupied by citizens of countries from Asia to the Americas, and for good reason; Singaporean medical care is world class, its surgical methodology and technology can be described as cutting edge, it is reliable, and it is reasonably priced. For all of those reasons, patients from Indonesia and the United States as well as other countries without high quality universal health care flock to the equatorial city-state for medical treatment.

Singapore‘s singular approach to developing itself as a tiny economic powerhouse relies on a vision with which it is hard to disagree. Singapore, far more ethnically diverse than most countries, has sufficient confidence in the value and persistence of its cultures that it has no fear of foreign incursion. On the contrary; unlike Indonesia, the country does everything it can to be foreigner-friendly. Starting a company, opening a bank account, acquiring a visa, transacting business … all are simple, easy, inexpensive and extremely well regulated. As a result, services and standards are second to none and there is a pervasive atmosphere that suggests that foreigners are welcome. Those foreigners prefer a milieu in which they know that standards, particularly medical standards, are adhered to and strictly regulated in a transparent and accountable fashion.

In a sense, the medical care that people all over the world seek and find in Singapore is representative of the country’s entire approach to development. If businesspeople are notoriously risk averse, if they demand stability and assurance of compliance with regulations, standards and laws, people seeking medical care are quantum measures even more demanding. They find the security and certainty they want in Singapore.

One of the added benefits, both to the nation of Singapore itself and to the patients who fill the hospitals, is that nothing succeeds like success. Because Singapore has become a nexus for medical treatment and care, the country attracts the best physicians. Doctors and other medical practitioners, trained all over the world, flock to Singaporean facilities to practice and to carry out research. This means that, with such a large number of world-class practitioners in such a small area, valid second opinions are easily found and even encouraged. It also means that medical care in Singapore is not only reasonably priced, but it is as up-to-date as it is possible to be.

Two people I know have had appendectomies in the last few years. One friend had his done at the best hospital he could find here in Jakarta. Beyond the usual negative comments he had regarding the callous treatment by staff and the labyrinthine bureaucracy he had to contend with, he had no serious complaints about the care and treatment he was given. His surgery was successful and he was in hospital for just under a week and recuperated well, leaving him with a four inch abdominal scar.

My other friend had his done in Singapore. After less than five minutes of paperwork, he was prepped and the surgery was done through what the doctors described as a “keyhole”, taking only a few minutes and requiring only local anesthetic. He was sufficiently recovered to fly back to Jakarta the same day and he now has no visible scar.

He says that the greatest complication he encountered was the need to bribe the customs officials at Soekarno-HattaAirport to allow him to bring his post-surgical medication home. Nevertheless, flights, medical bills, medications and bribes all included, his costs were just over half of what my other friend paid.

Singapore, a tiny nation, wealthy despite a complete dearth of natural resources, has made medical care one more arrow in its formidable quiver, and, not incidentally, brought additional wealth to its citizens as well as health benefits to citizens of other countries. (Patrick Guntensperger)

The author is a social and political critic, writer, lecturer and consultant. A Canadian expat, he lives and works in Jakarta and may be contacted at [email protected].

The Jakarta Post, July 31, 2008