• Vol. 50 No. 4, 315–324
  • 15 April 2021

Health-seeking behaviour of foreign workers in Singapore: Insights from emergency department visits


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Introduction: Foreign workers (FWs) on work permit face unique health challenges and potential barriers to healthcare. We aimed to examine the epidemiology, attendance patterns, disposition, and adherence to follow-up, by FWs on work permit to two emergency departments (EDs) in Singapore. Methods: In this retrospective observational study, we included consecutive FWs on work permit who registered at the EDs of two public restructured hospitals from 1 May 2016 to 31 October 2016. Data obtained from electronic medical records included patient demographics, triage acuity, disposition, ED diagnoses and bill information. Results: There were 6,429 individual FWs on work permit who contributed to 7,157 ED visits over the 6-month study period, with male predominance (72.7%, 4672/6429), and median age of 31 (interquartile range 26 to 38) years. A high proportion of these FWs were triaged to low-acuity status compared to the general ED population (66.9% versus 45.9%, P<0.001). Trauma-related injuries contributed to 34.4% of their visits, and were more likely to result in admission compared to non-trauma-related conditions (18.7% vs 15.2%, P<0.001). FWs engaged in shipyard, construction and process industries were more likely to be discharged “against medical advice” (14.8% vs 3.2%, P<0.001), and default their specialist outpatient follow-up (50.1% vs 34.2%, P<0.001) for non-trauma-related conditions compared to trauma-related injuries. Conclusion: In Singapore, the EDs of public restructured hospitals provide healthcare safety nets to FWs on work permit. These workers made more low-acuity visits compared to the general population during the study period and may face potential barriers to admission and follow-up.

Singapore employs a large foreign worker (FW) population, defined as non-Singapore citizens and non-permanent residents working locally. Holders of “work permit” (WP), the work pass issued to semiskilled workers, comprise 26.0% of Singapore’s entire labour force. Two other work passes held by FWs, “S pass” and “employment pass”, are issued to mid-skilled workers and professionals. As of June 2020, WP holders comprise one-sixth of Singapore’s population of 5.69 million. Just over a quarter (26.9%) are foreign domestic workers (FDWs) domiciled with their employers’ families.

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