The words “Chinese” and “medical tourism” in the same sentence might look strange, but major efforts are underway to secure China a significant and growing share of this lucrative market. Globally, medical tourism is booming. An estimated 6 million people travel internationally each year to seek medical treatment, with the sector estimated to be worth around US$100 billion in 2012, growing at an annual rate of 20-30%.
Many medical professionals believe that China can be competitive globally, given its advantageous healthcare prices. Heart surgeries cost around one tenth of US prices while hip or knee replacements in Shanghai are more than 70% cheaper than in the US.
Healthcare costs and the cost of medical insurance premiums in USA continue to escalate at an alarmingly rate. In addition, many medical and surgical procedures are no longer covered by insurance. This has made it imperative for Americans to seek alternative, affordable options for their healthcare treatments. One such option is medical tourism or traveling to foreign countries that offer exceptionally good medical services at amazingly affordable rates.
Today, more and more Americans fly out to China to get themselves treated in the high-tech Chinese hospitals at a fraction of costs demanded by hospitals in US. Hospitals and healthcare facilities in China often match or even surpass the quality of healthcare available in US-based hospitals. China also scores well when it comes to:
- High standards of healthcare technology Quality of services Low-waiting periods for most procedures Availability of medical personnel trained in Europe or the US Affordability of air travel
Shanghai was among the first places in China to get serious about medical tourism. In June 2010, the Shanghai Medical Tourism Products and Promotion Platform was established with the support of local government agencies including health and tourism bureaus. The platform was soon able to bring together over 20 participating hospitals in the metropolis, handling patient inquiries online, helping contact hospitals that can offer the right treatment, and even arranging the entire trip. While it’s unclear how successful the initiative has been, the company that runs the platform cites around 100 inquiries a month, and says many patients from Argentina, for example, have been treated for cancer.
Shanghai East Hospital, located in the city’s financial centre, is one of the platform’s initiators. It treats about 50,000 foreign patients a year, although it’s uncertain how many of these have travelled to China for treatment. The platform’s websites list a dozen of wide-ranging treatments on offer, from cancer treatment to cosmetic surgery to fertility treatment.
Following Shanghai, Hainan Province in April this year published a plan to build a special zone for medical tourism, the first in the country. Some have also suggested that China promote its traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to draw in medical tourists.
For example, Sanya TCM Hospital in Sanya, Hainan Province, has been promoting TCM therapies such as acupuncture, massage and cupping therapy to attract tourists. Since 2002, the hospital has received over 25,000 overseas patients, mainly from Russia and Central Asia. The program has proven so popular that the hospital last year set up a travel agency to help expand its medical tourism business.
Promoters of medical tourism, however, point to government regulations that allow public hospitals to set aside 10% of their medical resources to VIP services. Some of these VIP service resources, as well as private and foreign investments, could be introduced to further develop medical tourism.