Singapore’s healthcare system is currently facing great strain. According to the spokesman of Ministry of Health, the demand for healthcare services in the country is projected to increase substantially due to its ageing population, together with changing disease patterns from lifestyles and diets.

Chronic diseases such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes will start to rise in individuals who are 40 years of age and older. If it is left untreated, it is likely to lead to more serious health problems such as kidney failure, blindness, heart attacks and stroke. The doctor worsens the situation as well: Currently, Singapore has 1.9 doctors per 1000 population, which is lower than countries such as Japan (2.2) and the United States (2.4).

Impact on healthcare system

A physician shortage in Singapore signals a significant effect on the quality of care. Without sufficient doctors, this equals longer waiting times for patients, which in turn leads to decreased time spent with the physician. Additionally, the increase in the number of patients that each doctor attends to may decrease the quality of care provided and increase the risk of avoidable mistakes. There are also likely to be increases in travel distances by patients in order to reach their respective healthcare providers, which places the greatest strain on patients with multi-morbidities and chronic diseases.

Likewise, the shortage of doctors will result in limited primary care access which will lead to lowered use of preventive healthcare. This will consequently result in several adverse effects that are likely to accrue healthcare spending. Essentially, unmet increases in demand is expected to further increase prices – the higher the shortage levels of physicians, the more likely healthcare costs will increase.

What is being done

In order to meet the demand for physicians, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has worked with the Education Ministry to increase the number of students that are accepted into medical schools, from 350 students in 2012 to 460 students in 2015.

MOH has also made the effort to attract Singaporeans who are midway through their medical studies abroad to return to work in the country; it offered to pay up to S$50,000 a year for their final three years of study, in return, they had to work in a public hospital for three to four years, which included their training year as housemen.

The efforts made by the government and MOH seem to have bore fruit - According to data from the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) 2015 annual report, the number of registered medical practitioners has risen steadily in the past five years. As of end-2015, Singapore had 13,006 registered medical practitioners in Singapore holding valid practising certificates, including 930 that were registered in the previous year. The total number of registered medical practitioners increased from 12,261 at the end of 2014; this continued a rising trend in recent years.

Essentially, the shortage of doctors would cause the country as a whole to struggle with an over-strained public healthcare system. Physician shortages will impact healthcare on several levels and the effects are already being felt, particularly in healthcare access, quality of healthcare provided and healthcare costs. Delayed treatment and greater travel distances for patients are also likely impacts of the shortage of doctors in Singapore’s healthcare system. Given that the alarm has already been sounded, and counter-measures are underway, one can only hope that the situation will take a significant upward turn in the near future. MIMS

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