Medical Tourism in Bangkok: Surgery and Sun

Medical Tourism in Bangkok: Surgery and SunTim Gladwin

Tourists visit Asia for many reasons. Beautiful, palm tree lined beaches provide the perfect environment in which to unwind. Atmospheric, exciting capital cities satisfy even the most demanding of shoppers. Spectacular tropical rainforests abound with all kinds of exotic animals. It is a breathtaking part of the world.

In recent years the area has seen the rise of a completely new breed of visitor, the health tourist. They come to take advantage of superb medical facilities and affordable rates offered by private hospitals throughout the region and, subject to the seriousness of their condition, to recuperate in a wonderfully relaxing environment. Where better to get over an operation than a stunning beach resort in, say, Phuket or one of Malaysia’s gorgeous hideaways, alternatively in the tranquil surroundings of a spa, maybe in the hills around Chiang Mai.

For healthcare providers and the governments of the countries in which these hospitals are located, medical tourism is extremely profitable and thus a concept they are extremely keen to develop. Patients pour in from countries like the US; places with no national health service to speak of and consequently plenty of potential patients who have either inadequate insurance or none at all to cover the exorbitant costs charged by domestic service providers. Typically they will pay 30-50% of the cost back home, making it an attractive proposition, particularly when it includes a couple of weeks of recuperative holiday afterwards.

There are also no shortages of patients from countries like the UK, where they have free healthcare, but also extremely long waiting lists. Someone who suffers with constant and quite awful pain may well be unwilling to wait four years for, say, a hip replacement on the National Health Service. At least not when, simply by travelling abroad, they can have it done privately in a matter of weeks, and at a cost that is affordable even to many individuals who would stop a long way short of calling themselves wealthy. Ex-pats and well-off locals in other Asian countries, which do not have the same standard of private healthcare or are more expensive, also provide an excellent source of business.

The market leader in this field is currently Thailand and, within the Kingdom, Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok is widely regarded as the pre-eminent service provider. It is a facility often compared to a five-star hotel, and in 2003 it treated over 150,000 patients from 140 different countries. Their web-site can be read in 14 different languages, appointments can be booked on-line and you can have live video consultations with your doctor before you travel. On the premises they have restaurants catering for pretty much every taste, including a Starbucks coffee shop and a McDonalds. From a quality perspective, in March 2002 they received certification from the US based Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, becoming one of only twelve hospitals worldwide to receive top accreditation.

Going back a few years, Asia ‘s healthcare centre was Singapore. However, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 brought about a positive sea-change. The catalyst was Bumrungrad’s decision on how to deal with the big fall in domestic demand for their services brought about by the economic downturn. Taking full advantage of the devalued Baht, they positively targeted patients from overseas. The results were immediate and the number of patients checking in from abroad rose dramatically. Domestic competitors quickly followed suit. Together, they soon established Thailand as Asia’s most popular location for medical tourists and during 2002 alone over 308,000 patients from outside of the Kingdom were treated; raising total revenue of approximately US$280 million.

Several of Thailand’s near neighbours took notice and wanted a bit of the action. India, Malaysia and the Philippines have all taken positive steps to emulate Thailand’s success, while Singapore has worked hard to re-establish itself.

India has been somewhat of a late comer to the market and only treated about 10,000 health tourists last year. Yet the potential is great and recent months have seen the launch of the Medical Tourism Council of Maharashtra, which aims to establish India as a leader in the field.

Malaysia is more established and treated around 100,000 such patients during the course of the last twelve months. Nevertheless, they also founded a similar organization last year called Medical Service Coordination International to promote the industry in a more coordinated manner.

Not to be left out, in March, the Department of Tourism in the Philippines announced its Health Tourism Programme. Focusing on cost effective, minimally invasive procedures and treatments carried out by accredited hospitals, the aim is to combine them with special itineraries showcasing some of the country’s foremost tourist attractions.

In 2002, Singapore treated approximately 200,000 medical tourists and they are aiming to increase that figure to one million by 2010. While the island state finds it hard to compete on price alone with their near neighbours because of their higher overheads, they do have certain advantages. For one thing, patients contemplating the possibility of something going wrong have the comfort of knowing that the country has a well-established and reliable legal system in which to pursue a malpractice suit. Moreover, the simple fact that Singapore is an entirely first world environment provides further peace of mind.

Given the vacation element implicit within the concept of health tourism, countries like Thailand and Malaysia have a clear advantage by reason of their status as mainstream, tourist friendly destinations. However, India and the Philippines also have a lot to offer, although they will need to educate many potential customers as to the merits of choosing them for the leisure element of any such “vacation”. In the meantime, they will have to compete primarily on the basis of cost.

The prospect of and undergoing a medical procedure is rarely a pleasant experience. So, anything that can make it more tolerable is probably a good idea. Having a holiday recuperating on a picturesque beach in an exotic location to look forward to wouldn’t be a bad start. Even for those not in need of surgery there is the option of taking a day at the start of an annual vacation to have a thorough medical check up with a minimum of inconvenience. You will be assured of comfortable surroundings and a bill that is a small fraction of what you would pay back home.

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