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Medical tourist numbers take a hit

  Saturday, 28 l 05 l 2011  Source: The Straits Times   
By: Poon Chian Hui and Melissa Pang

Saudi Kids’ Deaths at Mt Elizabeth Hospital
Cancellations and drop in enquiries from Saudi Arabia, say concierges

THE effects are being felt. At least two medical concierges which bring in medical tourists are seeing cancellations and a drop in enquiries from Saudi Arabia. They say this could be a result of news reports there about how three Saudi Arabian children had recently died while seeking treatment at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore. Mr Borhan Saini, chief executive of Wellcare Holdings International, said he received cancellations from five regulars yesterday. The Saudi Arabians were due to arrive next month for treatment for conditions such as cancer, but have now suspended treatment until further notice. One of the hospitals they were supposed to have gone to was Mount Elizabeth. “They did not tell me why they weren’t coming any more, only that they would inform me again if they will return,” said Mr Borhan, who added that Middle Eastern patients make up about 5 per cent of his clientele. He added that the timing of the cancellation led him to suspect it had to do with the news.

Mr Syed Munir Iqbal, executive director of Medi-Connect Singapore, said the company received a couple of enquiries from Saudis, but these were later dropped and he has not heard from them recently. One woman scheduled for an appointment earlier this week at the National Neuroscience Institute also did not make the trip here. “Whether this incident is the catalyst, it’s hard to say. It could be one of the contributing factors,” said Mr Syed. Earlier this month, two Saudi Arabian girls and one boy died within a week after unsuccessful bone marrow transplants at Mount Elizabeth.

Rawabi Al-Hazmi, reported to be nine, died on May 14, and Darin Al-Areeni, reported to be five, died on May 19. The boy, Muhammad Abu Zinadah, died last Friday. It is not known how old he was. Saudi Arabian media reported that the children’s guardians had filed complaints with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health and its embassy here. The reports also said the Saudi Health Ministry had “stopped all treatment” at “a Singapore hospital”, which was later confirmed to be Mount Elizabeth.

Singapore’s Ministry of Health said it has not heard from the Saudi government and the families of the dead children. Its spokesman added that the ministry was in the process of gathering the facts of the cases. The officer-in-charge at the Saudi Arabia embassy was not available to comment yesterday. Mount Elizabeth has explained that the three children were critically ill when they were admitted, and that their cases were complex and they had limited chances of survival.

Saudi Arabia is part of the Middle East market which includes the United Arab Emirates, Dubai and Bahrain. It is one of the three biggest markets for medical tourists here, the others being Indonesia and Malaysia. Research and consulting firm Frost and Sullivan estimated that Singapore received more than 720,000 foreign patients last year. An article last August in the International Medical Travel Journal reported that Singapore has been seeing 20 per cent more Middle Eastern medical tourists every year since 2006. They commonly seek liver transplants, in-vitro fertilisation, heart and cancer treatment.

But while some patients are staying away, others are still confident in the service they get here. Raffles Hospital, which has seen a two-fold increase in the number of Middle-Eastern patients over the last two years, said it has not been affected by the recent incidents. Industry players say it is too early to gauge the long-term impact of the recent incidents and media reports. Said Wellcare’s Mr Borhan: “Of course Singapore’s reputation would be affected, but it is hard to tell how how long it will take to recover.”

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