Medisave 101: Know your basics, from pills to scans

SINGAPORE - Medical scans, such as X-rays and ultrasound imaging, have many uses, and not all of them have to do with cancer. For example, they can be used to detect kidney stones, fractures and liver problems.

The good news is, from early next year, you can use up to $300 of your Medisave savings a year to pay for outpatient scans for such non-cancer-related conditions.

Currently, people can tap on the national medical savings scheme for outpatient scans only if they are for cancer - for example, to monitor the disease. They are allowed to use up to $600 a year for this.

But medical scans are commonly used on non-cancer patients too.

Dr Andrew Tan, chief of radiology at Changi General Hospital (CGH), said imaging is performed on non-cancer patients to confirm the diagnosis and to survey the extent of problems, such as fractures, gall bladder disease and kidney stones.

X-ray imaging, for instance, can be completed in less than a minute and is therefore particularly useful in emergency diagnosis and treatment.

In an X-ray, electromagnetic waves are used to create pictures of the inside of your body in shades of black and white. "If someone fell and hurt his wrist, we would recommend an X-ray to check for any fractures," said Dr Crystal Ng, medical director of Executive Health Screeners of Parkway Shenton.

Other common scans are ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Generally, X-rays are good for examining bones and joints "to detect fractures or growths", while the other three are better at assessing organs or soft tissues, said Dr Ng.

Ultrasound, for instance, is commonly used to scan the hepatobiliary system, making it useful for patients with liver disease, such as chronic hepatitis or liver cirrhosis, said Dr Tan.

It uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of organs and structures inside the body. It takes 20 to 40 minutes.

CT scans, however, are commonly used to check for suspected stroke or head injuries, while MRI scans can be used to scan the brain of stroke patients to evaluate their condition, said Dr Tan.

CT scans combine multiple X-rays to provide cross-sectional images of the tissues and bones in the body.

MRI scans use magnetic waves to look at the organs and tissues within your body and can take 30 to 45 minutes on average.

"Unlike other basic imaging methods, CT and MRI scans offer detailed views of many types of tissue, including heart, lungs, bones, organs, soft tissues and blood vessels," explained Dr Ng.

While CT scans require a shorter time of five to 15 minutes on average, they emit radiation.

"We don't want to unnecessarily expose people to CT scans. One scan can have a radiation level which is equivalent to 80 X-rays," said Dr Ng.

Excessive radiation can cause cancer. But doctors will always keep the radiation exposure as low as possible without compromising on medical benefits.

The cost of a scan depends on several factors, including the type, where it is performed, how complex it is and which part of the body is being scanned.

Generally, an ultrasound scan of the hepatobiliary system at CGH costs about $130 for private patients and $60 for subsidised patients, said Dr Tan. Subsidised patients pay $160 for a CT brain scan and $340 for an MRI scan of the lumbar spine at CGH, he added. Private patients pay more. Permanent residents and foreigners also pay more for the same scans at public hospitals.

At the private Parkway Health Radiology, an MRI scan starts from $760, said Dr Ng. X-rays are the cheapest. A basic one usually costs less than $70, she added.

Other Medisave changes

Apart from being able to tap on your Medisave for outpatient scans, you will no longer have to pay the deductible amount of $30 when you use Medisave for selected chronic outpatient treatments from July 1.

But, you will still have to co-pay 15 per cent of the bill.

If you are an elderly person, you will also be able to draw an extra $200 a year to pay for selected outpatient treatments, starting from the first half of next year.

However, you should remember it is your own savings after all. So, use it prudently.

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