Thailand as a Med­i­cal Tourism Des­ti­na­tion

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Front Page - Writ­ten by: Sudi Narasimhan

Most peo­ple gen­er­ally as­sume that “med­i­cal tourism” is a fairly re­cent trend, but for nearly 100 years, many peo­ple have been trav­el­ing be­yond their bor­ders to seek med­i­cal spe­cial­ists. One key ex­am­ple of this phe­nom­e­non is the Mayo Clinic, lo­cated in the Amer­i­can city of Rochester, Min­nesota. Many peo­ple have trav­eled hun­dreds of miles to re­ceive spe­cial­ized care at this fa­cil­ity given that it ranks among the top in­sti­tu­tions in the world for over 15 spe­cial­ties. To­day, the Mayo Clinic has sev­eral satel­lite lo­ca­tions and treats over a mil­lion pa­tients com­bined, while their orig­i­nal Rochester campus re­port­edly treats 400,000 pa­tients a year with more than 40% trav­el­ing over 500 miles to re­ceive care. These num­bers in­clude 8,500 in­ter­na­tional pa­tients from 140 coun­tries. Gen­er­ally, the world’s top spe­cial­ists need ac­cess to a large pop­u­la­tion so they can con­sis­tently treat a high num­ber of cases and pa­tients and have di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence with dif­fer­ent vari­ants of dis­ease within their spe­cialty. These spe­cial­ists are usu­ally lo­cated in places where a wide range of pa­tient ac­cess is avail­able or in in­sti­tu­tions that are very well known, where pa­tients are com­fort­able to make the jour­ney to re­ceive care. The level of med­i­cal care and pa­tient ser­vices of­fered along with the con­nec­tiv­ity and in­fra­struc­ture of the des­ti­na­tion are im­por­tant fac­tors in a suc­cess­ful model of med­i­cal tourism.


Thailand has had a long his­tory of med­i­cal prac­tice and ed­u­ca­tion. The fa­ther of the King, Prince Mahi­dol earned his M. D. with cum laude hon­ors from Har­vard Med­i­cal School in 1928, prior to com­ing back to Thailand to work in the mis­sion­ary- run Mccormick Hospi­tal in Chi­ang Mai. Un­for­tu­nately he fell ill shortly there­after and passed away from liver ab­scesses at the young age of 37. Nev­er­the­less, he is con­sid­ered by many as the Fa­ther of Modern Medicine in Thailand.

Since that time many doc­tors have been ed­u­cated by sev­eral well- re­garded med­i­cal schools within the coun­try. Of­ten Thai doc­tors spend many years abroad to prac­tice a spe­cialty medicine be­fore re­turn­ing back to Thailand later in their lives. The USA re­mains a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for many of these doc­tors but oth­ers also go to Europe, Ja­pan, and Aus­tralia to prac­tice medicine. When these doc­tors re­turn to ei­ther the pri­vate or pub­lic

sec­tor, they are able to share ad­vanced knowl­edge and prac­tice from strong med­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions in other parts of the world. This has given Thailand a strong ad­van­tage in pro­vid­ing ex­cel­lent med­i­cal care within the coun­try and this ben­e­fits Thai cit­i­zens, ex­pa­tri­ates who live here, as well as in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers.

For­eign vis­i­tors con­tinue to heav­ily fre­quent Thailand, with nearly 30 mil­lion in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers en­ter­ing Thailand in 2015 alone. This num­ber has steadily grown over the past 20 years and is likely to keep grow­ing, al­though the mix of na­tion­al­i­ties is likely to change over time. Thailand also has a mix of ex­pa­tri­ates from across the globe num­ber­ing in the sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand.

Bangkok is a well- con­nected air hub with di­rect flights to many cities around the world, and the in­fra­struc­ture of the roads, ho­tels, and restau­rants is such that it is easy for trav­el­ers to come to Thailand and seek out med­i­cal care. It is not sur­pris­ing then to know that Thailand is now viewed as one of the top des­ti­na­tions for med­i­cal trav­el­ers from around the world with es­ti­mates of 2.8 mil­lion med­i­cal trav­el­ers com­ing into the King­dom just in 2015. This com­pares with es­ti­mates for Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, with ap­prox­i­mately 1 mil­lion med­i­cal trav­el­ers ( the ma­jor­ity com­ing from In­done­sia) and ap­prox­i­mately 200,000 go­ing to In­dia for treat­ment.


There are dif­fer­ent med­i­cal ser­vices of­fered in Thailand in­clud­ing: pri­mary care ( an out­pa­tient doc­tor visit), se­condary care ( an out­pa­tient visit or an ad­mis­sion), ter­tiary care ( more so­phis­ti­cated hospi­tal care), den­tal treat­ments, aes­thet­ics & plas­tic surgery, and even med­i­cal spas.

Of­ten trav­el­ers come to Thailand to seek treat­ment as part of a hol­i­day or busi­ness trip, but some come to re­ceive med­i­cal care as the pri­mary ob­jec­tive of their trip. For many vis­i­tors, the price and qual­ity of med­i­cal ser­vices in com­bi­na­tion with Thai hos­pi­tal­ity are the key cri­te­ria used when mak­ing a de­ci­sion on where to re­ceive med­i­cal care. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, there are three main fac­tors at play when trav­el­ers seek med­i­cal care in Thailand to treat se­ri­ous or com­pli­cated con­di­tions.

The first fac­tor that ap­plies to the great­est num­ber of trav­el­ers is lack of ac­cess to parts of a fully de­vel­oped health­care sys­tem within their own coun­try. Of­ten this ap­plies to the neigh­bor­ing coun­tries around Thailand but this can also ex­tend into more dis­tant coun­tries in East Africa or Cen­tral Asia. Typ­i­cally, pa­tients in these coun­tries who have the means seek out care abroad and con­sider their op­tions of where to re­ceive care. Thailand of­ten ranks highly in this de­ci­sion- mak­ing process.

A sec­ond smaller group comes to Thailand to re­ceive good qual­ity care that is sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper com­pared to what is of­fered at home - these are typ­i­cally Amer­i­cans but this could also ap­ply to other ar­eas where the cost of health care has be­come quite ex­pen­sive and is based on a model where the pa­tient pays for ser­vices.

The third group has ac­cess to so­cial­ized medicine but wishes to re­ceive care quickly or seek out ser­vices that are not cov­ered by the coun­try; many of these lo­ca­tions have long wait­ing lists for non­emer­gency sit­u­a­tions so they turn to re­ceiv­ing care from pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions.


There are many op­tions for pa­tients to choose when re­ceiv­ing care in Thailand, with 53 hos­pi­tals be­ing ac­cred­ited by the Joint Com­mis­sion In­ter­na­tional ( JCI), an or­ga­ni­za­tion that au­dits and cer­ti­fies hos­pi­tals and is glob­ally viewed as the Gold Stan­dard on ac­cred­i­ta­tion. Many of these hos­pi­tals are lo­cated in and around Bangkok but oth­ers can be found in the tourist des­ti­na­tions of Phuket, Chi­ang Mai, Pat­taya and other cities within the coun­try.

For high level ter­tiary care, Bangkok is gen­er­ally viewed as hav­ing the best in­sti­tu­tions in the coun­try, and sev­eral hos­pi­tals in Bangkok are listed among the top hos­pi­tals in the world by pub­li­ca­tions such as On Top Lists, Top Masters in Health­care, and The Rich­est, to name just a few. As ev­i­denced even by this small sam­pling, Bum­run­grad Hospi­tal con­sis­tently ranks in all of these lists as one of the best hos­pi­tals over­all when com­pared to some of the big­gest names in health­care around the world.

It’s im­por­tant to note that Bangkok Hospi­tal and Ramkhamhaeng Hospi­tal are also ranked hos­pi­tals, which speaks to the over­all qual­ity of care that is read­ily avail­able here in Thailand.

The gov­ern­ment plays a role in reg­u­lat­ing and mon­i­tor­ing health care providers. The Min­istry of Pub­lic Health and Thailand Med­i­cal Coun­cil reg­u­late the li­cens­ing of doc­tors and in­sti­tu­tional stan­dards of all types of medicine prac­ticed within the coun­try, while the Thai FDA fol­lows a strict process to ap­prove new medicines. This fo­cus on stan­dards has helped to en­sure that strong sys­tems are in place within the coun­try even if at times it may slow the pace of in­no­va­tion of cut­ting edge treat­ments.

Given the num­ber of providers in this space, hos­pi­tals will need to bet­ter fo­cus on pro­vid­ing stronger med­i­cal ser­vices, in­cor­po­rat­ing new tech­nol­ogy, and train­ing to de­liver bet­ter care while in­creas­ing ser­vice lev­els to an­tic­i­pate and de­liver on the needs of pa­tients and their fam­i­lies.

Given that the growth of in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors is ex­ceed­ing the nat­u­ral growth of the pop­u­la­tion each year, in­com­ing in­ter­na­tional med­i­cal trav­el­ers will con­tinue to be an im­por­tant and at­trac­tive seg­ment of the health care sec­tor and we can ex­pect all providers to con­tinue to raise the bar to draw this group into the King­dom.

A con­se­quence of this ef­fect is that all res­i­dents of the coun­try will also ben­e­fit from these ef­forts as there will be higher qual­ity ser­vices of­fered and strong com­pe­ti­tion will help to keep prices rea­son­able. In that sense those of us who live here are quite for­tu­nate.

Sudi Narasimhan is Cor­po­rate Di­rec­tor of Mar­ket­ing and Busi­ness De­vel­op­ment at Bum­run­grad In­ter­na­tional Hospi­tal. He can be con­tacted at Sudi@ bum­run­grad. com.

Bum­run­grad In­ter­na­tional Hospi­tal, ranked one of the top 10 most tech­no­log­i­cally- ad­vanced hos­pi­tals in the world by On Top Lists, The Rich­est, and Top Masters in Health­care.

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