Experiencing a Foreign Medical System: Singapore

It took exactly 1 hour the other day to go both to the hospital and the medical clinic before picking up a tea and heading back to the office. The fruits of my journey included: a full pack of travel medicine (drugs, bandages, iodine wipes, etc) from the hospital travel clinic, a doctor visit, completed lab tests and appropriate antibiotics.

I didn’t have an appointment. I got in queue in both places, had never seen the doctor or pharmacists before, and didn’t bother using my insurance…. Oh, and if you weren’t already thinking this: it was a painless process. The hardest part was finding a parking space. By the way, the bill at the hospital pharmacy was SG$20 (~US$14) and at the doctor (test, antibiotics, pain pills, doctor visit all included) was SG$48 (~US$36).

Which is how I finally came to understand what people mean when they say the ‘American medical system is broken.’ Instead of healing me (which it also ultimately did), it typically caused me more pain first. And I never really even noticed.

I’ve fallen sick several times out here in Singapore. New environment, new tropical weather and not adjusting my habits accordingly has led to unanticipated, but in hindsight not unexpected issues.

The first time I was really ill I was white as a sheet, sweating, and nauseous with pain before I finally asked my boss for help finding a doctor. The next time I literally spent a week in China in the same state and popping Tylenol like candy to try and lessen the pain. I was completely unwilling to find someone to help me translate ‘urinary tract infection’ into Chinese. And I was a little afraid of a foreign medical system. At the same time I kicking myself for forgetting the nifty little International SOS card my company had given me. For exactly this sort of thing.

When I returned to Singapore and the stubborn thing still wasn’t gone, I dragged myself to the clinic. And I really had to drag myself there, despite the pain. There was cajoling, the commentary of coworkers about how poorly I looked, and a lot of internal whining. To finally convince myself to go to the doctor, I told myself it was the equivalent of running an errand to the grocery store. Because it practically is in terms of effort. At least in Singapore.

Why am I so resistant? Why did I let myself be in so much pain for so long?

There are a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason I avoid the doctor is because I have a very. low. tolerance. for hassle.

Let’s be honest, going to the doctor in the States requires a choice of hassles. Or of simply accepting that you will be hassled and it’s worth enduring. But seriously, who wants to endure when they are sick?

In Singapore, the process goes something like this: arrive at clinic (with no appointment) and take a number to queue. There are different queues for the lab, for those refilling certain prescriptions and for those seeing the doctor. The receptionist simply gives you a number for the correct queue when you arrive and say “I’d like to see the doctor.”

Wait until your number flashes on the sign above the exam room. Each time I’ve gone I’ve waited about 10 minutes and there were about 6 people in front of me. Meet with the doctor, describe what’s going on, what you’re worried about. He (or she) will do a brief exam and then send you next door for a test. You will literally be in the room next door to his exam room. There is no stripping and getting naked in a cold exam room. No waiting and looking at the magazines before and after the nurse comes in. No nurse who asks you what’s happening, only to be asked all the same questions again by a doctor 15 minutes later.

After the visit with the doctor, you return to the waiting room and wait another 5 minutes to be called to the receptionist desk where you will be asked if your company is paying or you are (as an expat I pay out of pocket and then submit to insurance). Be handed a filled prescription, hear instructions, pay a brief bill (and an inexpensive one) and leave.

That’s it.

I just want to yell in happiness (as happy as one can be while sick.)

The entire process requires about 25 minutes from arrival to exit with a diagnosis and a filled prescription. On a bad day or at the HDB clinics (which are also usually the ones open at night,) it could be a whole hour. (This includes the prescriptions, labs, and checkout.)

Now, if something more serious is happening, or less common – I’m sure the clinic is not the right place to go and maybe it’s a bit more complicated. I’ll let you know – I have an appointment to see a dermatologist soon which I booked online in the few moments while waiting for one of my larger files to open.


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