Operation hard-sell

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 August, 2005, 12:00am

Drive into Bangkok on the airport highway and one of the signs that greets you, on tourist-friendly Sukhumvit Road, is that of Bumrungrad International Hospital. Sure, you think, it might be handy to remember that if anything goes awry. For some visitors, though, this gleaming high-rise hospital is their destination.

Billed as the world's leading international hospital, Bumrungrad has pioneered the market for medical tourism in Thailand. Last year, 360,000 foreigners checked in for treatments ranging from nip-and-tuck surgery to heart operations. Prices are at least 50 per cent lower than at private hospitals in Hong Kong or Singapore; compared to Europe or Australia it's a steal. Trained nurses are on hand round the clock, along with translators in several languages, and most doctors are overseas-educated and speak English. Oh, and the rooms are better than half the hotels in Bangkok.

The latest spurt of interest is from the US - not surprising, considering about 40 million Americans lack health insurance and a heart bypass can cost US$100,000. In April, the US TV programme 60 Minutes came to coo at Bumrungrad's plush facilities, US-trained doctors and smiling American patients. The day after the show was aired, the phones started ringing off the hook. But having proved that sun and surgery sells, Bumrungrad is facing competition from other Asian countries eager to lure foreign patients.

India and Vietnam are among those jumping into the fray. India's giant Apollo Group is betting on the good reputation of Indian doctors in America, and some savvy marketing, to compete. Bumrungrad isn't taking this lying down. Its marketing team is convinced that Thailand is more attractive than India, at least when it comes to convincing patients that the health care is world-class and that you won't go home with malaria.

In this business, appearances also matter. Bumrungrad's lobby (yes, lobby is the right word) looks like a five-star hotel's - with carpets, sofas, a Starbucks and a concierge. This is deliberate, its American chief executive Curtis Schroeder told 60 Minutes. 'Part of the concept was to create an environment [such that] when people came in they didn't really feel like [they were] in a hospital. Nobody really wants to go to a hospital,' he said.

Bumrungrad also owns 40 per cent of Manila's newest medical centre, Asian Hospital, and has won a contract to manage two private hospitals under construction in Myanmar and Bangladesh. It is also investing in a new hospital in Dubai.

All of which must be making Singapore pause for thought. For years, its private hospitals were a magnet for wealthy Southeast Asians and expatriates. That may be changing.