Singapore’s luxury liver transplants draw Cambodians

Singapore’s luxury liver transplants draw Cambodians

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Singapore’s Gleneagles Hospital, which often feels more like a hotel than a medical centre, is a prime destination for wealthy Cambodians seeking liver transplants, which are unavailable in the Kingdom. Photograph: supplied

With paintings on every wall, a hotel-fresh scent, and a full-service restaurant on the ground floor, Gleneagles often feels more like a five-star hotel than a hospital.

The Singaporean medical centre, owned by private health care company Parkway Pantay Ltd, has become a prime overseas destination for some of Cambodia’s wealthiest citizens seeking treatment.

In addition to Gleneagles, Parkway runs three other hospitals Singapore – Mount Elizabeth, Parkway East, and Mount Elizabeth Novena – and operations throughout Asia including Malaysia, China, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

The company’s Patient Assistance Centres are central in bringing patients from countries where high-quality healthcare is difficult to access or nonexistent. Cambodia is among these.

“Our Cambodian patients are mostly sent to two hospitals – Mount Elizabeth and Gleneagles,” says Phoung Nimol, the marketing executive at Parkway’s Patient Assistance Centre in Phnom Penh, which has operated for four years. According to Phoung Nimol, gastrointestinal and liver diseases are the primary reasons Cambodians seek treatment in Singapore.

“Mount Elizabeth treats a lot of heart, lung, stomach or gastrointestinal diseases. But Gleneagles specialises more in liver cirrhosis, especially liver transplants,” he said.

Liver cirrhosis is a chronic liver disease usually resulting from long-term alcohol abuse or untreated hepatitis B and C infections. In its most severe stage, the entire affected liver must be removed through a complicated and expensive procedure that is not currently available in Cambodia.

Dr Chea Por, a physician and general manager at DN Polyclinic in Cambodia, noticed during a recent visit to Gleneagles that the Singaporean facility has modern surgical equipment that hospitals in Cambodia simply cannot afford.

“The surgical equipment at Cambodian hospitals is already out of date,” he said.

While hospitals in Cambodia may provide hepatitis patients with the same medicinal treatments as Gleneagles, when it comes to liver transplants the Kingdom’s centres are ill-equipped. Patients who can afford it choose to fly abroad for the procedure.

“The problem with liver transplants is that about 50 per cent of a donor’s liver is cut off,” said Dr Tay Khoon Hean, a general surgeon at Gleneagles.

During the procedure, the affected portion of the patient’s organ is removed and replaced with the donor’s right-side liver, according to the surgeon. But before the hospital can conduct the operation, precautions are taken to ensure that the donor’s and recipient’s blood types are compatible.

“All over the world, we don’t have enough donors for liver transplants,” said Dr Tray Khoon Hean. “In Singapore last year, there were only between 12 to 15 donors.”

Gleneagles Hospital saw about 200 liver transplant patients last year, among them a significant number of foreigners, though Parkway could not specify how many Cambodians had sought the procedure.

Apart from infrastructure capacity, the reliance on donors could raise ethical questions around organ trafficking were transplants to be conducted in the Kingdom, according to Dr Chea Por.

“Because we don’t have liver transplant surgery yet in our country, we don’t have a law for this surgery either,” he said. “But I believe that Cambodia will consider human rights. Liver transplants may involve the abuse of the human rights, so a donor should always be the relative of a recipient. Otherwise there will be a black market.”

Sheida Farah, the front office manager at Gleneagles Hospital, said that a liver donor generally stays at the facility between one to two weeks, while a recipient could stay up to several months after the procedure.

She said that the hospital not only provides first-rate surgical treatment, but also post-operative patient care that includes artistically and soothingly decorated rooms, a comforting hotel feel, keeping medical equipment out of sight whenever possible, and offering patients premium customer service – all to help patients heal faster.

And with this luxurious care comes the extravagant bill: the cost of a liver transplant at Gleneagles starts at about US$206,000.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]

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