Indonesia has many good doctors, so why do so many people seek healthcare abroad? The Jakarta Post's contributing writer T.Sima Gunawan, who recently visited Raffles Hospital upon the latter's invitation, tries to find the answer.
The last day of 2007 was hectic for doctors at the eye center of Raffles Hospital in Singapore as there were a lot of patients while it was only open for half the day.
Many of the patients were foreigners, including an Indonesian family from Jakarta who had apparently worked doctors' appointments into their holiday.
"I have many Indonesian patients even though I am sure that you must have good ophthalmologists in Indonesia," Lee Jong Jian told The Jakarta Post.
As a matter of fact, 35 percent of Raffles' patients are foreigners, mostly Indonesians.
Raffles is not the only hospital in Singapore that has a high number of Indonesian patients. Earlier reports said Indonesians spend around US$600 million a year for healthcare abroad, with most of them or more than 100,000 going to Singapore.
The number of foreigners seeking medical care in Singapore has increased from year to year. In 2003, it was about 230,000 and the figure rose to 320,000 in 2004 and 352,000 in 2005.
Out of the nearly 10 million visitors to Singapore in 2006, approximately 410,000 or 4 percent traveled specifically for healthcare, according to Jason Yap, director of healthcare services, Singapore Tourism Board.
The 380-bed Raffles Hospital, like many other reputable medical centers in Singapore, has centers for international patients, providing special attention to the customs of each nation. For example, the centers serve kim chi to the Koreans or sushi to the Japanese, while the British and Scottish will have muffins and biscuits for their afternoon tea.
As for Muslim patients and their family members, the hospital management will arrange to place prayer mats, direction signs and compasses in their rooms.
The international patient center offers various services, ranging from picking up the patients from the airport to providing them with interpreters and tourist-related information.
"There is no extra charge for that," said Magdalene Lee, a corporate communications executive at the hospital.
The only thing you have to do is make an appointment and you can come as soon as the following day when it is necessary. On the designated day, you can expect to see the doctor soon without having to wait for a long time.
For a new patient, the doctor will allocate about 30 minutes, while, for the next visit, the time usually reduces by half. This, however, can change, depending on the condition of the patient and the disease. A doctor at an aesthetic center, for example, can see up to 40 patients a day.
"But an oncologist will see only 20 patients at the most," Magdalene said.
Officially opened in 2002, Raffles Hospital has a number of specialty clinics from an Aesthetics Center and Eye & ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) Center to a Heart Center and a Cancer Center. It also has a special center offering traditional Chinese medicine and treatment. Each clinic has a desk that handles your registration, bill and medicine.
"You can do it at just one place, you don't need to go here for the registration and go there to pay the bill or to get the medicine," she said.
Several types of room are available for patients who have to stay at the hospital, from the six-bed room to the presidential suite. As for the patient's family, the hospital has special rooms at an affordable rate starting from $120 per night with a safety deposit box, TV, hot shower, laundry service and room service.
Good service and efficiency are the strong points of hospitals in Singapore that are often overlooked by hospitals in Indonesia.
In Jakarta, it is common for a patient to wait for a long time before they can see a doctor even though they have made an appointment.
A young woman who had skin problems said she had to wait for more than an hour before she could see a dermatologist at an international hospital on the outskirts of Jakarta. After she saw the doctor, she had to pay the bill at a certain counter and then take the prescription to the pharmacy in another part of the hospital. At the pharmacy she had to wait for 90 minutes because the pharmacist said she must prepare the cream by mixing a number of ingredients. Besides which, there were dozens of patients who were all waiting for their medicine.
She paid a Rp 120,000 (less than SDG $20) consultation fee, and another Rp 20,000 administration fee. Jakarta hospitals usually charge the same fees for both old and new patients.
In Raffles Hospital, the consultation fee for the first visit starts at $85, for subsequent visits it starts at $65.
Despite the higher fees, a lot of Indonesian patients prefer to seek healthcare abroad. Some of them might go to Singapore because they have diseases such as cancer or heart conditions and want to make sure they receive the best treatment. Others may come just for a general checkup, spa treatment or surgery that could actually be carried out in Indonesia.
The procedures may only be carried out a little differently in the two countries.
Lee said he used a new technique to perform cataract surgery and surgery for other retina problems. He said that conventionally the surgical treatment for retina problems, known as vitrectomy, required the use of stitches and a long operating time. He applies a new technique without stitches, pain and discomfort while allowing faster vision recovery. Depending on a patient's condition, they can go back to work in about two weeks compared to the usual four to six weeks of medical leave.
As Lee said earlier, Indonesia has many good doctors. This might be true but the patients, especially those with money, need more than that. They want good and friendly service.