For many years Thailand has been regarded as an ideal location for both vacation and long term retirement. It has also been considered to be one of the best places for medical treatment with several high-level facilities and some of the lowest premiums in Asia. However, in recent years, medical costs in Thailand have begun to rise.
In comparison to the rest of South Asia, Thailand is still on par for simple treatments. However, the same can't be said for inpatient and complex treatments, and it's a situation that concerns both regular tourists and medical tourists.
A Growing Industry
According to the international travel guidebooks Patients Beyond Borders, every year, about 7 million people fly abroad looking for quality and affordable medical care, an industry with an approximate net worth of US $40 billion. Previously, Thailand was known for offering some of the world's most economical treatment with procedures that can be 50-90% cheaper than in the US. Each year the country receives approximately 2 million foreign patients, and it has been projected that over 24.5 million foreign tourists will visit Thailand in 2013.
BBC Travel states that medical tourism in Thailand is growing at a yearly rate of 16%. It's also expected that the medical service sector will reach 100 billion baht by 2015. Currently, medical tourism makes up 0.4% of Thai GDP, while tourism in general is about 6% to 7%.
After observing the country's capacity to deliver world-class treatment and the substantial demand from abroad, the Thai government has increased their focus on medical tourism with development in three main areas: medical services, herbal products, and health care such as spas and traditional massage. According to the Thailand Board of Investment, the projects are concentrated in the high tourist areas, such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Surat, Thani, Pattaya and Hua Hin.
Thailand currently has over 400 private hospitals in addition to its public hospitals which number over 1,000. The private urban hospitals in Thailand have long been swarmed by tourists around the world. Previously, many people simply sought cosmetic procedures or sex reassignment, but now there is a greater range of treatments available, the most prominent of which are general check-ups, dental care, hip replacements, laser eye surgery, kidney transplants and heart surgery.
The Bumrungrad and Samitivej hospitals were among the first facilities in Asia to become recipients of the prestigious JCI certification (Joint Commission International), and today there are 30 JCI accredited hospitals in Thailand.
The lobby of the Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok is comparable with a 5 star hotel with a concierge service, efficient and multilingual staff, and the ability to book sightseeing tours at the city. In fact, most Thai doctors are trained in Europe or in USA.
Travelers from other affluent Asian countries also seek treatment in Thailand. Bangkok Hospital has an entire Japanese wing and the Phyathai Hospitals Group has translators for 22 languages, including Swedish, Khmer, Flemish.
The "Land of Smiles" has a high level of healthcare, which is affordable in comparison with the United States. However, the costs are still relatively high for Thai citizens and expatriates, especially for tourists who are severely injured or ill.
In 2010, the International Living magazine gave some examples of prices during that time. A heart bypass surgery – which typically ran anywhere from US $70,000 to $133,000 in the US – only cost US $22,000 in Thailand. A facelift, costing US $10,500 to $16,000 in the US, was only US $2,400 in Thailand. Today, however, the prices have changed. A facelift package in the Bangkok Hospital, for example, is now US $6,800.
The World Health Organization (WHO) published a study about the effects of medical tourism in Thailand. After examining trends of the price of health care services in private hospitals, the WHO found that the average charges for five representative medical procedures (caesarean section, appendectomy, hernia repair, cholecystectomy and knee replacement) had increased by 10-25% during 2006 to 2008 when Thailand gained more recognition as a hub for medical tourism. However, between 2003 and 2005, most price increases were single-digit, and prices even dropped in one representative hospital. The WHO said that these figures "are consistent with public complaints that rapidly rising medical charges in private hospitals are making it more difficult for many middle-income Thais to continue to seek treatment in high-end hospitals".
The Case of Robbie Robinson
The media contains a recent story that best illustrates the health care situation in Thailand. In June 2013, Robbie Robinson, a healthy 32 year old male from Ireland, visited Bangkok on vacation. After a night out, Robinson, having forgot his keys inside the apartment, decided to climb up in order to access his fourth story balcony where he lost his footing and fell. Robinson suffered a shattered skull from the fall and entered into a coma as a result.
Unfortunately, Robinson did not have any valid travel or health insurance at the time. 15 days later in a Thailand hospital, Robinson's family was faced with weekly bills of more than €10,000 to keep him under treatment. The medical evacuation option, where Robinson would be flown back to Ireland in an air ambulance, was over €100,000. After four weeks, only thanks to a number of fund-raising efforts and donations was the family able to raise the necessary funds to pay for the medical evacuation and leave Bangkok.
In an interview with the Herald, Robinson's mother Martina said, "All our young people, who think they are invincible and who emigrate, may not realize that, once they are out of the country for more than six months, your health insurance is void... I'd say to them to please keep this in mind. Robbie has no insurance and the medical and, hopefully, repatriation costs are horrendous".
For those planning to move to Thailand, there are numerous local providers that offer low prices for health insurance. However, if one wishes to receive the same level of medical treatment that one would receive in a more developed country, then he or she will require the service of an international hospitals, and only international insurers can ensure such a level of cover.