SINGAPORE: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said Singapore is “progressively catching up” with the post-COVID hospital capacity strain.
He highlighted that the Tan Tock Seng-Integrated Care Hub (TTSH-ICH) has successfully added 300 beds since October 2023, while the upcoming Woodlands Health Campus (WHC) is slated to commence operations by mid-year, initially offering 360 beds.
Minister Ong projected WHC’s bed capacity to nearly reach 600 by year-end.
He was responding to a Parliamentary question filed by Asso Prof Jamus Lim, Workers’ Party Member of Parliament for Sengkang GRC.
Asso Prof Jamus Lim asked the Minister whether there remains shortages of hospital beds and available nursing staff in public hospitals, relative to a year ago.
He also asked what is the progress of ongoing plans to increase hospital capacity; and whether public hospitals are currently facing capacity constraints, even in non-crisis environments, and, if so, why.
In a written reply, Mr Ong acknowledged that like most developed countries, Singapore continues to experience a capacity crunch post COVID-19.
He highlighted that this challenge is further compounded by an ageing population, resulting in an increased influx of elderly patients with complex health conditions necessitating extended hospital stays.
He admitted that Singapore will need to continue increasing our hospital capacity.
“We have also been building up our nursing workforce, and the staffing situation in our public hospitals has improved relative to a year ago.”
Despite hospital infrastructure projects were delayed due to the pandemic, Minsiter Ong defended that Singapore’s healthcare system is “progressively catching up” to bridge the existing gaps.
For instance, he highlighted the successful addition of 300 beds at TTSH-ICH since October 2023.
He also anticipated WHC to commence operations by mid-year, initially offering 360 beds, with plans to expand to almost 600 beds by year-end.
Additionally, Minister Ong outlined ongoing initiatives such as the development plans for the Eastern Integrated Health Campus and the redevelopment of Alexandra Hospital.
These projects are slated for completion by the end of the decade and are expected to alleviate strains on the existing healthcare infrastructure.
In addition, hospitals are tapping into facilities like Transitional Care Facilities and alternative care models like Mobile Inpatient Care@Home (MIC@Home) to expand overall capacity, the minister said.
The Mobile Inpatient Care@Home (MIC@Home) model allows patients who require acute hospital care to have their active medical issues managed through the delivery of inpatient-level services at their homes.
Minister Ong: Singapore expanded national healthcare workforce to over 120,000
In response to PAP MP Joan Pereira’s inquiry about initiatives to encourage more Singaporeans to join the healthcare industry, Minister Ong shared in a written reply that over the last five years, Singapore has significantly expanded its national healthcare workforce, growing from approximately 100,000 to over 120,000 professionals.
Specifically, the segment of clinical and patient-facing professionals has risen from 85,000 to 98,000, while non-clinical support has increased from 19,000 to 22,000.
Notably, around 80% of this workforce comprises Singapore residents.
“Today, one in twenty students choose to enrol in a healthcare course, and hence we are getting our fair share of the local talent pool that will help maintain a majority of Singaporeans amongst our healthcare workforce,” Minister Ong said.
Highlighting the MOH comprehensive strategy, Minister Ong outlined a multi-pronged approach aimed at attracting Singaporeans to join the healthcare sector.
This approach involves early engagement with students to foster interest in healthcare careers, offering Career Conversion Programmes targeted at mid-career professionals, job redesigning within the healthcare domain, and ensuring competitive remuneration.
“We complement this local core with foreign healthcare workers, including nurses and support care staff. ”
Minister Ong earlier stressed resilience of Singapore’s “10,000-bed-strong system”
Addressing the media on 22 December last year, Minister Ong acknowledged the strain caused by the year-end surge in COVID-19 cases, which resulted in approximately 600 to 700 hospital beds being occupied by COVID-19 patients.
“We are a 10,000-bed-strong system. To take up 600 or 700 beds, it’s 6 or 7 per cent, which is not small. It’s a significant workload on our healthcare workers and our system.”
“Nevertheless, I think our assessment remains… that we can withstand this without additional safe management measures,” he added.
In October 2023, the Ministry of Health (MOH) reported an addition of 500 new beds across various healthcare facilities. The aim was to incorporate an additional 800 beds by the end of 2023.
Mr Ong had previously indicated the ministry’s intention to introduce 1,300 beds in 2023 to address the current bed shortage. He likened the expansion to “one-and-a-half regional hospitals.”
Public concerns over lengthy waiting times at Singapore hospital despite Minsiter’s assurance of a ‘10,000-Bed-Strong System’
Despite the Minister boasting the resilience of Singapore’s “10,000-bed-strong system”, a recent revelation by a reader highlighted issues at Ng Teng Fong Hospital’s A&E department on 2 January, indicating a consultation wait exceeding 6 hours and a bed wait of up to 25 hours.
Expressing dismay, the reader remarked, “I always thought we are a first world country. How is it that our planning so screw up? Didn’t MOH plan for this population explosion as well as aging population?”
When queried by Channel News Asia last November, Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) said the waiting time for beds is dependent on several factors, such as the patient’s condition and the existing patient load in A&E departments.
In April 2023, MOH noted an increase in median waiting times for ward admissions, rising from five hours to 7.2 hours.
At the time, MOH said that volumes of both COVID-19 and non-COVID patients have increased, causing longer waiting times in some hospitals.
In response to a CNA query, the ministry explained, “The root cause, as explained recently by (Health) Minister Ong Ye Kung in parliament on Mar 21, 2023, is that we have many more patients with more complex medical needs, often older, who needed longer hospital stays.”
The MOH reassured that while patients wait to be admitted, their treatment would continue.
The ministry said, “Our public hospitals will activate inpatient teams to start investigations and treatment for patients in the emergency departments while awaiting admission into the hospital.”
Furthermore, if urgent care is required, patients may receive treatment or undergo surgery elsewhere in the hospital before a ward bed becomes available.
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