Srinagar, Asharq Al-Awsat- Asia is fast becoming the new home to what is known as ‘medical tourism’ as countries such as India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines are attracting a large number of medical tourists every year.
Medical tourists from all over the world – US, UK, Europe, the Gulf States and Japan are visiting Asia after realizing the potential of the Asian healthcare systems. Estimated currently at US $1.5 billion, the medical industry is expected to increase to US $4 billion in the next five years, enhancing the Asian economy, as research shows a medical tourist spends an average of US$362 per day, in comparison to the average tourist’s expenditure of US$144 per day.
A report by the Kasikorn Research Centre states that Thailand has the highest income from medical tourism as 1.35 million expatriates visited Thai hospitals in 2006, generating revenue of approximately US$ 900 million. The popularity of this country is a result of its excellent health services that include offering ancient Thai herbal remedies to the tourists from the west, the Middle East and the Far East at reduced costs.
The Thai medical education system is based on the US model. The factors that are contributing to the 20%-30% annual growth of Thailand’s health industry includes international accreditation of Thai hospitals, and internationally trained, English-speaking doctors as well as the country’s reputation as the ‘Land of Smiles’ with its friendly people, superb beaches and tasty food.
Thai hospitals offer services such as dental implants, face lifts, nose jobs, ear surgery, eyelid surgery, liposuction, tummy tucks, and breast surgery in Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui.
Singapore on the other hand has made its name in medical tourism by carrying out complex surgical procedures such as stem cell transplants, liver transplants and advanced robotic surgery.
According to the World Health Organisation, Singapore’s health system is ranked the best in Asia and amongst the best in the world ahead of Japan and the US. Singapore attracted 370,000 medical tourists last year. The sector aims to attract one million medical visitors and US $3 billion dollars in revenue and to create at least 13,000 jobs in the health industry by 2012, reports a Singaporean news agency.
As well as medical treatment, Singapore is visited for health screenings and aesthetic and anti-ageing programs. It aims to compete with neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Malaysia through medical tourism.
India is also competing in this sector as its healthcare industry is growing at annual rate of 30%, employing 4 million people and currently attracting approximately 200,000 visitors each year. India is a relatively new participant to this field and faces strong competition from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. These three countries together at present attract ten times more medical tourists than India alone; however, it is predicted to generate at least US$2.2 billion by 2012.
Unlike other healthcare tourism destinations that are directed towards physical health through surgical treatment, Indian healthcare services provide alternate ancient therapies including yoga, meditation, ayurveda, aromatherapy, acupuncture, and so on.
Dr Lloyd Nazareth of Wockhardt Hospital Mumbai says, “India could be the medical tourism capital of the world as it has the advantage of English speakers, highly qualified medical professionals and diversity of tourism. The WHO estimates that India must increase the number of hospital beds by 80,000 per annum for the next five years to meet growing demand.”
The Indian healthcare industry employs over four million people. Corporate hospitals, offering world-class treatments in almost every medical field has changed the face of medical care in this vast country. Medical tourism in India accounts for 13% of the total global healthcare industry but is growing at a higher rate than other international markets.
The Chamber of Industry in India believes that the country should seek to replicate the success of the Thai model and capitalize on its inherent strengths to become a world player in medical tourism.
Naresh Trehan, the executive director of Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre, a leading private healthcare provider, states that India has established world-class expertise in practices such as heart treatment, cosmetic surgery, joint replacements and dentistry.
Malaysia, which attracted 150,000 patients in the first half of 2006, expects its medical tourism to generate enormous revenue of US $1 billion by 2010.
According to Malaysia Tourism, “Medical expertise in Malaysia ranks among the best in the world and most private hospitals in the country are of international standards. All private medical centres must be approved and licensed by the Ministry of Health.”
Malaysia is also blessed with numerous captivating beaches. Hotels and resorts are dotted along the coastline in popular areas or secluded lagoons. Most of them boast luxurious spas and the pleasure of rejuvenating massages. Malaysia is warm all year round and its people are welcoming. With excellent hotels, a superb motorway system and streets that are safe and well policed, a medical vacation to this country may be just what the doctor ordered.
DeMicco, Cetron and Davies, the authors of the travel book entitled ‘Hospitality 2010’ wrote that most private hospitals in Malaysia offer accommodation for their patients ranging from comfortable rooms to luxurious suites with personal butlers and full time nurses. Some hospitals also offer a sleep-in facility for companions who are accompanying patients. The cost of accommodation is reasonable, whereby foreign patients can afford luxurious suites and arrange comfortable accommodation for their travelling partners.
South Korea is also on its way to attaining the position of the world’s capital for plastic surgery. A report in The Korea Herald stated that Anacli, a Seoul-based clinic for skincare and plastic surgery, has treated approximately 10,000 foreigners over the past year, mostly Japanese and Chinese. The Korean government and hospitals also contribute to the marketing of Korean medical care by easing visa restrictions in order to attract foreign patients.
The Philippines has been long known for its fabulous beaches, however this is no longer the country’s only attraction as the government seeks to transform the country into a legitimate destination for medical tourism by incorporating medical care into holiday packages. It provides a combination of conventional and alternative medicines, offered with an attractive holiday package to medical tourists from the Middle East including United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Dubai, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Oman, Qatar, Turkey and Iran as well Eastern European countries.
A major factor that contributes to the boom of Asian medical tourism is the low cost, as in Western countries the prices of medical care have increased significantly. Asia offers world-class healthcare at much lower prices, using the same technology and carried out by competent specialists, ultimately resulting in comparable success rates.
A news report quoting Abacus International President and CEO, Don Birch, said, “Medical tourists are a new breed of travellers. They have particular needs, they are going to these locations for a specific reason, have a holiday in an exotic place where they can soak up the sun, visit other landmarks and end up with a new hip or knee, a healthy heart or a robot-controlled joint replacement.” He continued, “What we are seeing now is an increase in the number of service providers in the industry specialising to meet the needs of this market, with tailored packages and services, and building partnerships with treatment providers to increase the number of consumers.”
Undoubtedly, price advantage is a major selling point. A heart-valve replacement that would cost US$ 200,000 or more in the US would cost US $10,000 in Asia. The price of knee surgery (on both knees) is approximately US$7,700 in India, whereas in Britain, it would cost GB£10,000 (US$16,950).
In April 2006, an Indian hospital successfully operated on an 87-year-old American patient at a reported cost of US $8,000 including the cost of his airfare and the cost of one month’s stay in hospital. The patient claimed that a less complex operation in America had previously cost him US $40,000.
US Planet Hospital, which arranges medical trips to eight foreign countries, stated that it receives more than 4,000 inquiries per month.
To cater to an international clientele, many private hospitals in Asia are applying for accreditation from the Joint Commission International, the global arm of the institution that accredits most US hospitals. Many of the tourist hospitals employ surgeons who have trained in the United States or Britain , which is a great comfort to American patients (the irony is that 25% of physicians in the US obtain their MD qualification abroad).
Rating agencies such as Crisil and the Credit Rating Agency have graded many corporate hospitals for setting standards.
Bangkok’s Bumrundgrad hospital has more than 200 surgeons who are board-certified in the United States. A number of Thai hospitals are also signing up, with Malaysia developing its own system.
The Indian Apollo group alone has so far treated 95,000 international patients, and is even seeking partnership with hospitals in other countries. “We have just established partnership to provide operational management services to Lagos-based Hygeia Nigeria, one of the largest healthcare groups in West Africa,” said Apollo group vice president, Dr Hari Prasad.
A report in a Singaporean newspaper quoting Dr Timothy Low, General Manager at Gleneagles Hospital Singapore said, “Our marketing offices throughout the region not only reach out to inform our potential customers of the types of services we offer, but also work in collaboration with local travel agencies to arrange for special health packages that will include logistic and travel requirements.”
To create awareness and market their medical services, Singapore’s Raffles Hospital works with 50 agents in 12 countries. Parkway Group Healthcare has marketing offices in 15 countries including China, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Brunei, UAE, Russia, Canada, Indonesia and Malaysia, which helped attract over 17,000 warded patients and 140,000 outpatients in 2006.