SINGAPORE - Singapore is planning to build more health-care facilities than it might currently need, in case projections are wrong and the population ages faster than expected.
Over the last few years, hospitals and nursing homes have been facing a severe bed shortage with strong demand outstripping supply.
This has resulted in the public sector renting wards from private hospitals, putting beds along hospital corridors, and delaying non-critical surgery.
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview: "You can say that given our experience and looking ahead, there is uncertainty; how fast we will age, what disease patterns will emerge, what kind of illnesses we're likely to see."
"We may want to consider over-building a bit, beyond what we have planned for, in case the ageing process is faster than we have planned for."
He explained that it is not so much building a buffer as building to meet the higher end of scenarios projected.
Mr Gan added: "Over time, with the ageing population, we will need it (the extra facilities). It will give us the flexibility to adapt faster. It is a matter of timing."
The population here is ageing rapidly, not just because there are fewer babies born, but also because people are now living longer.
In the past two decades, life expectancy here has gone up by seven years.
Older people generally use more health-care services.
When in hospital, they also tend to stay longer. By 2020, Singapore will have 600,000 seniors.
Mr Gan said: "We are now planning for the long term. We need to build in flexibility to allow us to adapt as the trend changes."
This means planning buildings that can be converted for different uses depending on needs.
For example, he said, there will be a facility to be built between the general hospital and the community hospital in Sengkang that can be put to either acute- or community-hospital use at short notice.
"So the facility infrastructure is there. Depending on the profile, demographics, we may change as we go along."
Mr Gan is also accelerating the building of facilities, with the Sengkang General Hospital to open in 2018, two years ahead of original plans.
He has also announced plans to build 20 to 25 more nursing homes by 2020. Mr Gan explained: "To build now is cheaper than later."
While it is important to build more facilities, Mr Gan said it is just as important for patients to be treated at the place that is most suitable.
Not all patients need to be in hospital or even a nursing home.
He said: "Some nursing home patients don't really need nursing home care. They ought to be taken home and cared for there."
Running a nursing home costs less than a third of the cost of running a community hospital.
A general hospital, on the other hand, is 10 times more expensive to run than a community hospital.
Mr Gan plans to enhance facilities in the community, such as day care and rehabilitation centres, to encourage more elderly and chronically sick people to be cared for at home.
He had announced last September that the Government will build more than 100 elder-care facilities within communities - including 10 nursing homes - by 2016 at a cost of US$500 million (S$610 million).