As Cambodians are beginning to live longer and healthier lives, with a generation more attuned to the need for health and wellness, many are travelling overseas for proper treatment while the Cambodian healthcare sector slowly catches up—leaving the majority of specialized treatments well out of reach. And when looking at the options in the region, particularly for cancer treatment, organ transplants, cardiovascular disease and general surgery, Singapore makes the list for all the right reasons.
In the 50 years since Singapore gained independence, it has stumbled and fallen, only to then quickly rise up to become one of the world’s most developed countries—and a financial powerhouse—despite its miniscule size of only 718.3 square kilometres.
Known as the only island-country-state in the world, this oasis is a burgeoning hub of tourism and hospitality, entertainment and education. According to the World Bank, the country has once again retained the top spot for doing business while it also continually ranks as one of most liveable cities in the world. This can be seen in the charming streets that pay homage to the country’s early beginnings, to the soaring gilded skyscrapers that light up the night sky. In Singapore, the quality of life is good.
One of the reasons is its strong commitment to health, as the country has become Asia’s premier port-of-call, attracting patients, doctors and scientists from around the world. The growth of healthcare has been spurred in part by large-scale investments into world-class hospitals and revolutionary medical research. To date, 21 hospitals, medical centres and medical organizations in Singapore have obtained Joint Commission International accreditation (JCI), a US-backed scheme to monitor the quality of a hospital, its procedures and laboratory settings. In comparison, Vietnam has only two JCI hospitals.
According to Bloomberg’s second annual healthcare rankings of 2014, Singapore ranked number one in the world, overtaking Hong Kong in health efficiency. The report had analyzed 51 countries citing such factors that include life expectancy—an astounding average of 82 years in Singapore— the cost of health care, and total medical expenditure for each person. The ranking can be directly linked to both Singapore’s proactive campaign towards preventive care and health education, as well as addressing the growing concerns of an ageing population. Singapore has one of the fastest ageing populations in the region, and by 2030 one in five residents will be over 65 and older.
While reaching the demands of an ageing population as well as robust economic growth, it is no surprise that it has become the top-tier destination for medical research and development in the region by pioneering new technology and medical treatments.
A few notable achievements include identifying a biomarker of ovarian stem cells which allow for earlier detection of ovarian cancer; first human clinical trials of a novel cancer vaccine – results have been promising; the first country to have successfully generated human kidney cells from human embryonic cells; and performing the first simultaneous pancreas and kidney transplant surgery in a patient with Type 1 diabetes who was suffering from renal failure.
Following suit with these breakthrough achievements, the Singaporean government plans to increase healthcare funding by 80 per cent in the next five years. This investment has helped attract an increasing number of multinationals who have entered the playing field to further their research. The goal: to make Singapore the undisputed leader in research and development in Asia. According to a 2013 report by Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, the government dedicated $5.75 billion to R&D, which reaped an impressive $17 billion to the economy. In the past decade, the number of scientists has more than doubled.
The work that is being conducted can not only be seen in the clean, well-lit facilities at numerous hospitals that span the city, but also in the health infrastructure that is continually being developed. Farrer Park Hospital, Singapore’s newest private hospital, is a complex that can best be described as a monument of innovation. The hospital is part of an integrated 20-storey complex named Connexion. Located conveniently near the international airport, the $570 million hospital houses 189 specialized clinics, and a hotel and spa. The hospital has 300 accredited specialists spread across 10 levels, with 18 operating theatres and 23 intensive care units. It is also replete with a radiotherapy suite, nuclear medicine suite, diagnostic imaging centre, and laboratory.
The goal of the hospital, said CEO Dr. Timothy Low, “is to attract patients from the region who need specialized treatments, where the expertise is not available in a clean and safe environment.”
Low, who has more than 25 years in the healthcare industry, previously served as the CEO of the prestigious 380-bed Gleneagles Hospital, and is also the Medical Affairs senior executive for the pharmaceutical and medical device industries in the Asia Pacific region. His mission at Farrer is to provide state-of-the-art care through fresh solutions at a fair value.
“I wouldn’t say that private healthcare is cheap, but what we guarantee is the newest technology and best practices from doctors across the world,” he said.
One of the hospital’s latest technologies is the Elekta Versa HD radiation therapy system; a groundbreaking machine that allows for accurate beams of radiation to target cancerous cells extremely quickly and with a high success rate.
“The adoption of this technology is a major improvement for Singapore, as the device allows for greater productivity and efficiency,” said Low.
To date, the hospital has conducted 1,200 surgeries so far and 20 successful open heart surgeries. But besides an already proven track record of expertise, the unique facet of Farrer Park Hospital is their focus on long-term rehabilitation with a fully-integrated staff and caregivers that are attached to each room.
“Healing doesn’t end after a successful operation. It is not just about flying in and then recuperating back at home. It is about having the best and most comfortable services to get the patient back up on their feet,” said Low. “And having family support close, where relatives can stay nearby, is essential in the rehabilitation process.”
That is why, as part of Connexion, the hospital is Asia’s first integrated lifestyle hub for healthcare and wellness that is linked to a five-star hotel and spa.
In addition to such hospitals like Farrer, Singapore has excelled and pioneered various forms of cancer treatment. Founded in 2006, Parkway Cancer Centre (PCC) is one of the largest and leading private cancer treatment centres in Singapore. Not only does it provide comprehensive screening, diagnosis and treatment, the centre operates alongside two of Singapore’s best-known hospitals—Mount Elizabeth Hospital and Gleneagles Hospital.
A quick tour through the facility at the Gleneagles Hospital showed healthy outpatients comfortably reclining in plush chairs, browsing the internet or watching the latest football match, as they received lifesaving chemotherapy treatment delivered from an IV drip. While these patients are battling the insidious disease that causes one in every eight deaths worldwide—more people than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined—Parkway Cancer Centre operates on a multidisciplinary approach that brings together doctors, nurses and paramedical professionals to provide holistic care.
“Optimal management of patients with cancer requires a holistic and multidisciplinary approach. For this reason, oncologists work alongside other medical specialists, nurses and allied health professionals like dieticians and counselors throughout the care of our patients,” said Dr Zee Ying Kiat, a senior consultant medical oncologist at Parkway Cancer Centre.
Dr Zee, who specializes in the treatment of esophageal, stomach, liver, pancreatic and colorectal cancers, sees patients from across Asia, including Cambodia.
In his years of clinical practice, Dr Zee has managed patients who had delayed seeking medical attention even when experiencing warning symptoms of cancer.
“It is not uncommon to see patients who do not address the disease immediately. Some choose not to see their doctor because they think of cancer as a death sentence. When patients think ‘what is the point,’ it makes my heart sink because cancer isn’t always something to fear,” he said.
Even in the absence of symptoms, screening for certain cancers can help save lives. Taking colorectal cancer as an example, Dr Zee emphasized the importance of educating the public about detecting the disease early through appropriate screening.
According to him, patients with stage 1 colon cancer have a survival rate of 85 to 95 per cent, while those with stage 4 colon cancer have a less than 5 per cent chance of surviving.
“Screening for colorectal cancer from age 50 provides the best chance of detecting the disease early with the highest rate of survival,” he said.
While the survival statistics for stage 4 colon cancer may seem grim, Dr Zee points out that a selected group of patients may still be cured through an aggressive approach involving surgery and chemotherapy. Even when we are unable to cure a patient of his or her cancer, treatment offers the hope for a meaningful prolongation of life, he explained.
“Beyond conventional surgery and chemotherapy, advances have been made in the use of targeted therapy in treating patients with stage 4 colon cancer,” says Dr Zee. An example is of a drug called Avastin, which targets cancer growth by blocking the growth of new blood vessels that would otherwise ‘feed’ the cancer with oxygen and nutrients.
“Targeted therapy may potentially cause fewer side effects compared with chemotherapy,” he said,” he added.
In order to prevent potentially life-threatening diseases, Dr Zee could not stress the point any stronger: Regular checkups and preventive healthcare is the best way to live a long life.
Additionally, at Parkway, oncologists like Dr Zee have introduced immunotherapy, an up and coming cancer treatment designed to boost the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
“Doctors and scientists are constantly trying to research the human body and its diseases in order to find the best treatments possible. That has a lot to do with Singapore’s success in the medical industry,” he said.
As Singapore has emerged in the past few years as an international healthcare and research hub, the number of arrivals to the country has understandably increased. According to a forecast by Singapore Business review, the medical tourism market is expected to grow by 8.3 per cent annually and reach revenue of $1.36 billion a year by 2018. According to the Singapore Tourism Board, in 2014 medical travellers spent $994 million on healthcare. Their data shows that on average, medical tourists spend 2.4 to 3.8 times as much as leisure or business travellers.
With Singapore’s excellent patient services and its dedication to research and wellness, it is apparent that it will remain as the top destination for those seeking medical care.
“By providing convenience and trust in our medical sector, there is no doubt that it will continue to expand and grow. Our dedication is towards the patient, cutting edge technology and personalised care. This makes Singapore a multi-faceted medical hub and a centre of excellence,” said Dr Low. “You can get the same standard of medical treatment offered in Europe and the USA at a fraction of the price.”