Indonesia aims to boost hospital standards to reduce citizens from seeking treatment abroad

JAKARTA – Indonesia plans to build international standard hospitals in Jakarta, Denpasar in Bali and Medan in a pilot project to reduce the number Indonesians traveling overseas to seek medical treatment, a senior minister has said.

Southeast Asia’s largest economy is also considering allowing foreign medical specialists to practice in these three cities, provided they work closely with local doctors to ensure transfer of knowledge, coordinating maritime affairs and investment minister Luhut Pandjaitan said on Saturday (Aug 30).

The government’s plan was prompted its hope to save on foreign exchange outflows in an economy that has been badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Some Indonesians prefer going to Penang and Singapore on consideration that the medical service there is relatively affordable and they get well faster,” according to Mr Luhut’s Instagram post.

At least 600,000 Indonesian “medical tourists” a year fly out of the country for treatment, most of them heading to Singapore and Malaysia, with each spending between US$3,000 and US$10,000 (S$4,075 and S$13,600).

The sums they spend compares to Indonesia’s gross domestic product per capita of just above US$4,000.

If these sums were spent domestically instead, jobs would be created and foreign investment would pump in money into healthcare services, Mr Luhut said.

Total spending by the Indonesians annually on medical bills in overseas hospitals could reach US$6 billion, according to a government estimate.

Professor Frans Santosa, who sits on the board of ethics of Indonesia’s Medical Association (IDI), puts a higher figure of US$10 billion.

The two neighbouring countries provide treatments from tummy tucks to surgeries linked to cancer.

Bali is Indonesia’s most-visited tourist site, while Medan is the largest city in the country’s second most populous island Sumatra.

To entice Indonesians to seek treatment in the country, the government is looking at allowing foreign specialists to practice in local hospitals.

If a treatment leads to a legal dispute such as negligence, the foreign doctors would likely face the same consequence as local doctors, according to experts.

Foreign doctors currently cannot practice medicine in Indonesia unless they pass the local doctor’s bar exam and are awarded a license, according to Indonesian doctors’ association (IDI).

Asked about this regulation by The Straits Times by phone Saturday night, Mr Luhut said that bureaucracy for a foreign doctor to get a permit to practice medicine in Indonesia needs to be simplified.

“We will study all the regulations that may need revisions,” the minister said.

He said the government would be very selective that only foreign doctors with very high expertise are allowed and local doctors would benefit from the transfer of knowledge.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging around the world, Mr Luhut said Indonesian patients would likely cancel their overseas medical trips as many foreign countries imposed 14-day quarantines on arrival.

But not all Indonesian patients would cancel such trips abroad.

“I have been with the same doctor in Singapore since early 2000s and I am sticking with him,” Ms Pusparyanti Sjamsuddin, 56, a housewife who survived breast cancer after she was treated at Parkway Cancer Centre.

She still travels to Singapore every six months for routine check-up. “Others may move to Indonesian hospitals on more competitive fees, but I am not.”

Prof Frans, a medical doctor who spent 20 years of his career in Germany, sees the government plan’s as feasible, saying Indonesian medical tourists also go to Australia, Germany and the United States, among others.

“Foreign specialists who are allowed to come here under a transfer of knowledge programme must be top-notch medical doctors who have had good track records… and have good human relations,” Prof Frans told The Straits Times.

Mr Luhut argued that the medical skills of Indonesian doctors are comparable to that of those abroad, pointing out as an example the country’s high level of recoveries from the coronavirus.

Indonesia has recorded a 72.6 per cent recovery rate among Covid-19 patients, compared with the global rate of 69.4 per cent, Mr Luhut said.

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