Treatments on the fly: Asia a top destination for medical tourism

The region continues to thrive as a health care hotspot

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 August, 2014, 4:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 11:58am

When Hong Kong resident Brett Hinds chose to have an eye operation in Thailand last year, he wasn't only motivated by the cheaper cost of the surgery. The treatment, called ReLEx, was a form of laser surgery unavailable in Hong Kong at the time.

"Quality and trust in the service provider influenced my decision - cost was a factor but not the biggest one," says Hinds, who declined to give his real name.

Medical tourism is a US$100 billion industry and growing, according to the Medical Tourism Association.

Once enticed by the prospect of combining discounted health care with a holiday, medical tourists are now being lured abroad by the quality and broad range of treatments on offer, from heart surgery to joint replacements.

Leading the charge is Asia, boasting 212 Joint Commission International - the gold standard in health care - accredited hospitals. Six out of the top 10 world's best hospitals for medical tourists are based in the region, according to Medical Travel Quality Alliance.

Travelling abroad in the name of health is not new. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians flocked to hot springs, while 18th and 19th century Europeans and Americans travelled to warmer climates for health retreats.

But surgery abroad is a fairly modern concept, driven by rising health costs in the 1980s and '90s. While Western medical professionals cringed at dangerously cheap health care, others saw potential, as governments in emerging economies developed their medical services industries.

After the Asian financial crisis, for example, Thailand's government directed its tourism officials to market the country as a hot destination for cosmetic surgery. It worked - last year, about 1.2 million visitors sought health care in Thailand, according to online medical travel resource Patients Beyond Borders.

Thailand is known for attracting medical tourists seeking legal loopholes around treatments such as gender selection IVF treatment or sex changes, but most go there for cosmetic surgery.

"The experience was impressive," says Hinds. "Service quality is their top priority. The day before the operation, I was assigned a personal consultant who I could reach 24/7."

Singapore, too, is a long-standing proponent of Asia's medical tourism industry, offering the best health care system in Asia, according to the World Health Organisation, thanks to state-of-the-art facilities, cleanliness and English-speaking staff.

The city state has carved a niche in organ transplants, cancer treatment, cardiac surgery and fertility treatment. Medical expenditure generated from travellers amounted to US$784 million in 2011, according to the Singapore Tourism Board.

Encouraged by the success of their Asian neighbours, other countries in the region are jumping on the bandwagon, with many sharpening their competitive edge by offering specialised treatment.

India leads the way in orthopaedic and cardiac surgery; newcomer Malaysia is making its mark in cosmetic surgery and comprehensive health checks, while South Korea is specialising in stem cell treatment and spine surgery.

Malaysia is one of the few countries in the region to be actively promoted by the government, says Dr Mary Wong Lai-lin, chief executive of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC).

"We want to position Malaysia as the preferred destination for world-class health care services," says Wong. The MHTC - set up in 2009 to develop the country's health care travel industry - seems to be having an impact, with 330,000 patients visiting in 2010 and the figure more than doubling to 770,000 in 2013.

In addition to having strong medical infrastructure and Western-trained professionals, Malaysia "offers value for your money", she says. To prevent overcharging, costs for procedures are capped.

"This leaves scope for combining a holiday along with the medical treatment for many holiday seekers," she says.

South Korea has also implemented measures to tempt medical tourists. The biggest step was establishing the Council for Korea Medicine Overseas Promotion and introducing a class of medical visas for foreign patients. Since the promotional campaign kicked off in 2009, the number of people visiting Korea for treatments has increased by 38.4 per cent annually, according to the online International Medical Travel Journal.

Meanwhile, Taiwan is hoping to capture a greater proportion of the Chinese medical tourism market, while South Korea aims to appeal to Japanese market.

Singapore has also seen an influx in patients from the mainland, while India has attracted patients from surrounding countries with less developed health care systems, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and central Asia.

Its predicted growth in medial tourism revenues of US$3.9 billion this year, is up from US$1.9 billion three years ago, says a 2014 report from professional services firm Deloitte.

But with so many health care providers in Asia, choosing a destination can be difficult.

"Destination is determined by what procedure is available, the price, the expertise and accreditation, and accessibility to that location," says Renée-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association, the first international non-profit trade association for the medical tourism industry.

Once you decide to pursue treatment overseas, contact a medical tourism provider. You will need to provide the relevant medical reports, find a hospital and approve a quotation. Then sign some documents, get a visa and jump on a plane.

Countries that make the cut

India: Surprisingly, the country is among the world's leading cardiac centres. Not only does it offer some of the lowest costs for heart surgery but some of the latest in medical technologies. Leading hospitals are The Apollo Group, Fortis Healthcare and Narayana Health. The country is also well known for orthopaedics, such as hip and joint replacement.

Thailand: Thai culture deeply appreciates beauty, so any cosmetic procedure - from tummy tucks to face lifts - can be obtained there at a fraction of the costs of Australian, European and American hospitals. The country is also renowned for eye and dental care, as well as potentially controversial gender and IVF treatments.

South Korea: Doctors are specialists in rhinoplasty, tip plasty (a Korean technique used to change the size and shape of the tip of one's nose), and eyelid surgery. It's also a destination for comprehensive medical check-ups.

Singapore: The destination for organ transplants, cancer treatment, cardiac surgery and fertility treatment. Asia's first IVF baby was produced in 1983 at the KK Women's and Children's Hospital in Singapore, so it's no surprise the country has become a specialist in this area. The KKIVF Centre is the country's largest infertility centre, offering a wide range of testing, diagnostic and treatment procedures.

Malaysia: Although it undertakes a broad range of medical procedures, the country has become known for its comprehensive medical check-ups. Malaysian hospitals are combining Eastern and Western approaches. For example, the Golden Horses Sanctuary offers traditional Western medical health screenings as well as a complementary medicine component.

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