Thailand’s advancements in healthcare have made it a top destination for international medical tourists
While a trip to the hospital is something most travellers wish to avoid, Asia has seen a significant rise in medical tourists—people who travel to another country to obtain medical treatment—with Thailand as one of the most popular and advanced countries in the medical tourism industry.
The phrase “medical tourism” was originally coined by travel agencies and mass media to publicize the rapidly-growing phenomenon. However, the practice is nothing new and dates back as far as Ancient Greece when pilgrims travelled from all over the Mediterranean to the healing temples of Asclepius, the god of medicine, for treatment of their illnesses. Likewise, in the 17th Century, the emergence of spa towns in scenic locations like the Pyrenees attracted patients across Europe.
As medical facilities expanded, and travel became more accessible, medical tourism—once an option reserved primarily for the wealthy—has spiked across the globe, with many people are now crossing international borders in search of high-quality and affordable healthcare in relaxing settings. Medical travel is usually for non-emergency treatments, such as in vitro fertilization, dental procedures, and cosmetic surgeries, but travellers also seek out foreign medical care if a particular treatment isn’t available in their home country like gender reassignment surgery.
According to the Medical Tourism Index, Singapore is still the number one destination in Asia for medical tourists, but Thailand nevertheless has it beat when it comes to affordability. It’s no surprise then that Thailand has made momentous strides in positioning itself within an incredibly profitable market.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) began promoting medical tourism as early as 2004, establishing a website detailing a list of popular available treatments. This August, TAT organized the Amazing Thailand Health and Wellness Tourism Showcase 2017 under the theme of ‘Thailand: A Paradise for Longevity’. The government’s dedication to publicizing medical tourism has resulted in increased profits, with medical tourism making up an estimated 10 percent of the national GDP.
It’s estimated that 2.8 million medical tourists were treated at Thai hospitals in 2015, and the growth of international visitors is expected to exceed the natural growth of the population. With this in mind, the Thai government introduced new policies this year that extend the visas of medical tourists, from select countries, to 90 days. Additionally, the long-stay visa has been extended to ten years for 14 countries.
Thailand’s medical service sector also combines high-quality care with vacation allure, as the Kingdom is one of the top holiday destinations in the world—boasting fabulous beaches, superb cuisine, a fascinating culture, and kind and accommodating people. Attentive service is one of the main factors that contributes to Thailand’s success with medical tourism as Thai people reputedly strive to do their best when performing services for their country’s visitors, whether at a resort or a hospital.
In the last decade or so, Thailand has established a multitude of medical facilities that are comparable to leading hospitals across the globe. The country has over thirty hospitals that cater to medical tourists, as well as many dental and cosmetic clinics and other alternative medicine centres. Thailand can also boast 58 JCI-accredited hospitals—more than any other Southeast Asian country.
Bumrungrad International was the first hospital in Asia to achieve JCI accreditation, and since then it has maintained competitive standards. It is one of three hospitals in the world, and the first in Asia, to offer CardioInsight, the latest technology in the diagnosis of cardiac arrhythmia.
Bangkok also boasts Better Being Hospital, Asia’s first functional medicine hospital. Here, a variety of in-patient and out-patient programmes are provided, from laboratory testing to physical rehabilitation in order to treat chronic diseases. Treatments are tailored according to each patient with an emphasis on therapeutic lifestyle changes. Also in Bangkok, MALI Interdisciplinary Hospital follows principles of holistic medicine, utilizing interdisciplinary experts across a myriad of fields in order to prevent and treat chronic conditions. While its main mode of healthcare is in regenerative medicine, it also provides services in physical therapy and traditional Chinese medicine, as well as cosmetic and gynecological services.
Regardless of which facility you choose, physicians in Thailand are highly educated and extensively trained, with many holding professional certifications from overseas. At Bumrungrad, for example, approximately 200 doctors are U.S. board certified and 400 were trained in Western hospitals.
Arguably though, the biggest draw to Thailand as a medical tourist destination is the affordability of its treatment costs. The cost of most medical procedures in Thailand is significantly less than that of their equivalents in Western countries. For example, a heart bypass that would cost US$130,000 dollars in the United States would only be just US$11,000 in Thailand. The average savings for a procedure can range anywhere from 20 to 75 percent. This allows budget-conscious travelers to put these savings toward their recovery, or even recreation in what is considered one of the top vacation spots in the world.
For people from developed countries, where the quality of healthcare is high but the price tag is too, medical tourists find that the added cost of airfare and accommodations is still cheaper than if they stayed in their home country to receive treatment. This is especially true for those who are uninsured. Meanwhile, medical tourists from countries with universal healthcare might also be drawn to Thailand for health purposes if they’re seeking non-emergency or elective care and desire immediate medical attention that wait times in their home country cannot accommodate.
Although Thailand is one of the premier locations for medical care, there is still more that can be done to raise the bar. Right now, Thai healthcare relies highly on specialized medicine rather than general medicine. While this is only a disadvantage if a patient’s underlying condition is unknown, it’s still something that can be addressed to increase Thailand’s appeal as a medical tourism destination.
Visitors and residents of the Kingdom nevertheless have access to some of the world’s best healthcare practitioners, medical facilities and treatments. First-rate technology, luxury amenities, excellent hospitality, and low treatment cost make Thailand a standout for both medical care and holiday getaways. As long as the TAT continues to make investments in medical tourism, and there’s persistent advancements in the overall quality of care, there’s no reason Thailand can’t become Asia’s top player in medical tourism.
By Allison Nicole Smith