Thailand as a Medical Tourism Destination
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.
MODERN MEDICINE IN THAILAND
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.
VARIETY OF MEDICAL SERVICES OFFERED
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.
MEDICAL INSTITUTIONS IN THAILAND
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.