Gates to a Hindu temple on the resort island of Bali in Indonesia, which will soon have an international-standard hospital. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Perturbed at Indonesians spending nearly US$7 billion a year on medical treatment abroad, the government is building an international hospital on a newly-closed golf course in Bali that will allow foreign doctors to actively practice in Indonesia for the first time. 

“If this comes to fruition, we expect that no more of our people will travel overseas to get health treatment,” President Joko Widodo told a December 28 ground-breaking ceremony for a project that is being undertaken in partnership with America’s famed Mayo Clinic.

According to official statistics, more than two million wealthy Indonesians seek healthcare treatment in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and the United States in preference to local hospitals, many of which are not as bad as they are painted.

Only last month, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono flew to Minnesota for treatment of early-stage prostate cancer at the Mayo Clinic’s Rochester headquarters after consultation with his own team of Indonesian doctors.

But while Singapore’s much-vaunted health system, in particular, plays an important role in providing second-opinion diagnosis and specialist care unavailable at home, many Indonesians travel there for easily-treatable minor ailments as well.

That is until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The case for an international hospital became more compelling when Singapore closed its doors to overseas visitors, shutting down its billion-dollar medical tourism industry and ruining the island’s reputation as a reliable safe haven.

The new facility is being built on the 41-hectare Bali Beach Golf Course, a 50-year-old, nine-hole layout at the northern end of Sanur, the sleepy outpost favored by foreign pensioners and mostly elderly tourists on Bali’s east coast.

Refurbished in 2005 on land owned by the State Enterprise Ministry, it is the second Bali golf course to close in four years. The stunning 18-hole Nirwana course has fallen into disrepair since billionaire Hary Tanoesoedibyo unsuccessfully tried to convert it into a six-star resort using the Donald Trump brand name.

The new Bali International Hospital is scheduled to open in 2023 in what Widodo has described as a special economic zone, providing a convenient alternative for an estimated 600,000 Indonesians who now seek treatment abroad.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has approved the new hospital on Bali. Photo: WikiCommons

Well aware of the shortcomings exposed during the pandemic, the president says the government will also intensify its efforts to attract investment in pharmaceutical plants to make drugs more readily available at a cheaper cost to its 270 million-strong population.

State Enterprise Minister Erick Thohir, a key member of Widodo’s cabinet, says Indonesia hopes to reduce pharmaceutical raw material imports from 95% to 75% over the next four years, initially using locally-grown herbs and petrochemical derivatives.

India’s pharmaceutical industry, by comparison, supplies 50% of the global demand for vaccines, 40% of the generic demand for the US and 25% of all medicines for the United Kingdom. The worldwide market was valued at about $1.1 trillion last year.

The government has provided few details on the cost of the Bali venture, but the involvement of the Mayo Clinic has already stirred controversy because foreign doctors will likely become an integral part of the medical staff.

When he first announced plans for the hospital last year, Maritime Affairs and Investment Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan said Widodo had already approved a special visa for “first-class doctors who can practice and transfer technology.”

The Indonesian Doctors’ Association strongly opposes opening up the local medical profession to foreign practitioners, but it may relent if the government confines any relaxation of the rule to oncologists and other specialists.  

The designation of a special economic zone may also mean that the Lippo Group’s Siloam chain and other privately-owned hospitals will be excluded from bringing in foreign doctors – apart from those now hired for purely administrative duties. 

The new facility will have 300 wards and space for 30 intensive care beds, in addition to a nursing school and also an academic research center to fill a requirement for more specialized care.

A Mayo Clinic spokesperson has clarified that the organization will not be investing in the hospital, only in advising on its development, planning and design and also in honing administrative efficiencies and effectiveness when it begins operations.