SINGAPORE's health-care sector cannot do without foreigners.
Today, more than 20 per cent of health-care professionals and 75 per cent of support staff are foreign. Yet health-care institutions are crying out for more workers.
More than half of the 836 new doctors here last year were foreigners. The bulk went to the public sector, where one in three doctors is a foreigner today.
Mr T.K. Udairam, head of the Eastern Health Alliance (EHA), said: "We are building more facilities and will need a lot more qualified people - doctors, nurses, clinical support service personnel and administrators."
The EHA needs to staff Changi General Hospital, St Andrew's Community Hospital, Peacehaven Nursing Home and several polyclinics in the east.
Singapore will build 25 more nursing homes and two more public hospitals by 2020.
Mr Udairam added: "It is not possible for us to recruit just local health-care staff to meet our manpower needs because we do not have enough trained locals."
It takes many years to produce qualified professionals. Singapore will have a third medical school next year. The three schools will eventually produce 500 medical graduates a year.
A further six years of training are needed to produce specialists.
Last year, more than 1,700 started their training to become nurses. This will be slowly increased to about 2,700 a year. Similarly, the number of locally trained pharmacists will go up from 164 to 240, and dentists from 48 to 80 a year.
The Government has projected the need for 32,000 more health-care professionals by 2030 - or a 70 per cent increase on today's figures. A further 9,000 support staff are also needed.
Professor Chee Yam Cheng, head of the National Healthcare Group helmed by Tan Tock Seng Hospital, said the ministry is "trying very hard" to recruit enough staff to man public sector health-care institutes such as hospitals and polyclinics.
The public sector loses trained doctors to the private sector on a regular basis. This accelerated recently with the opening of the new Mount Elizabeth Novena.
In a bid to get more locals to work here, the Ministry of Health (MOH) introduced study grants in 2010 to Singaporeans studying medicine overseas.
The grants cover their last two years of study, capped at $40,000 a year. In return, they have to work here for four years.
Prof Chee said the grants will likely be popular with Singaporeans studying medicine in Britain as it is difficult for them to get jobs there. But he doubts that the ones training in Australia will be keen to return as "their lifestyle is too good".
Mr Udairam foresees continued strong demand for health care here as "people are living longer but getting more sick" and because they are increasingly becoming "very demanding of health- care workers".
The number of people aged 65 and older is expected to treble from 30,000 today to more than 90,000 by 2030.
With ageing, as well as changes in lifestyle, the number of people suffering from chronic ailments such as diabetes is also climbing.
Mr Liak Teng Lit, who heads Alexandra Health, described health care as a "bottomless pit" where demand - not always justified - will always outstrip supply so long as there is subsidy.