Asia’s got sandy beaches, ancient history and award-winning restaurants, but that’s not why tourists are flocking to Thailand and Malaysia: they’re coming for the health care. Medical tourism is a booming industry in Asia thanks to cheap prices, cutting-edge equipment and infrastructure that encourages visitors in need of a check-up. Which five Asian countries are top in the medical tourism industry? Read on.
Ten years ago Singapore was said to be the capital of Southeast Asian medical tourism, but by most estimates, Thailand has now taken that title. More than 1.2 million patients visited Thailand in 2013 for the purpose of medical tourism, supporting an industry that brings the country hundreds of billions of Thai Baht every year.
Thailand’s medical tourism boom has been bolstered by the government’s keen interest in hospital accreditation. Patients concerned about safety and professionalism can choose from 33 clinics and hospitals accredited by the Joint Commission International: a global group that reserves its seal of approval for health care centers that are safe, meet multiple quality benchmarks, and have extremely strong records of patient success and satisfaction. Even the World Health Organization has called Thailand’s health care facilities “world class,” a distinction that safety-conscious patients have no doubt taken note of.
The reason many people choose Thailand for a medical procedure is the same reason any medical tourist travels abroad: cost. The price of a hip replacement surgery in Bangkok is around half the cost it would be in the United States, and other procedures offer a similarly low price point. What’s more, Thailand is easy to get to thanks to Bangkok airport’s plethora of cheap flight options to and from cities around Asia and around the world.
Between them, Singapore, Thailand and India account for 90 percent of Asia’s medical tourism industry, and as one of the “big three,” India has accrued foreign support and investment. With money coming into the nation’s private health care system, hospitals that cater to medical tourists have been able to purchase state-of-the-art equipment and many have received JCI accreditation.
India also promotes its physicians and surgeons as being not only world class but also trained internally through the country’s renown medical universities and research centers. Using internal talent at top medical tourism facilities keeps costs low (some estimate that patients visiting India can save up to 85 percent on surgical procedures) while still ensuring a qualified health care professional with knowledge of international medical practices and, potentially, a range of languages.
Some experts say that in the near future, India will become a clear leader in medical tourism across Asia and around the globe, mostly due to the cost effectiveness of care within the country. Even in comparison to a relatively cheap destination such as Thailand, surgery in India can cost as much as US$2,000 less. Similar to other nations keen to increase their medical tourism industries, India promotes agencies that that assist patients in every step of their journey: helping to arrange itineraries, visas, local transportation and sightseeing options for accompanying family members.
Newcomers to the world of medical tourism may be surprised to learn that so many patients choose to take their medical needs to Singapore. It’s the most expensive city in the world; a place where the cost of living is 30 percent higher than Manhattan even.
However, medical care in Singapore isn’t too pricey. A knee replacement can cost up to US$53,000 in the United States, but in Singapore that procedure comes in at around US$13,000. Surgery in Singapore is more expensive than in surrounding medical tourism destinations such as Malaysia and Thailand, but for patients seeking an exceptional (yet not overly costly) standard of care in a developed nation, Singapore is unbeatable. The country has more than 15 hospitals dedicated to the needs of medical tourists and staffed with English-speaking doctors accustomed to the needs of foreign patients. Facilities are modern and equipped with cutting-edge technology, guaranteeing comfort, safety and proven medical results.
Medical tourists venturing abroad for the first time may also feel more at home in Singapore, as opposed to India or Thailand. English is widely spoken and city infrastructure is orderly, allowing some medical tourists to feel more at ease during their visit.
Whereas patients seeking serious treatment tend to turn to Singapore and India, those in search of cosmetic procedures look toward South Korea. This East Asian country actively promotes itself as a destination for plastic surgery, and has even invented an operational technique it calls tip plasty: in which the size and shape of the tip of the patient’s nose is surgically altered.
South Korea is a leader in all sorts of technology, including that related to medicine. Medical tourists in South Korea appreciate the ability to record patient information, in real-time, within an electronic medical records system. Computerized health records reduce paperwork and ensure that patient information is easily accessible, even if the patient is under anesthetic. South Korea is also developing medical technology in the field of robotic surgery, a method likely to bring more patients from abroad in the future.
The government of South Korea is happy to promote medical tourism: building international health centers, and offering visitors a special visa if they’re coming to the country for the primary purpose of a medical procedure.
An up-and-coming destination for medical tourists, Malaysia appeals especially to patients interested in both Eastern and Western medicine. At alternative clinics designed for international visitors, qualified health care professionals provide acupuncture, herbology, and other forms of traditional Chinese and Southeast Asian medicine.
The number of medical tourists in Malaysia has more than doubled since 2010, due to the country’s lost cost of care and availability of well-trained, often international staff. As in neighboring Singapore, many of these staff speak English as a near-native tongue, and may be trained in other European languages too. Malaysian physicians and surgeons are also knowledgeable in Muslim customs, a fact which is fast making Malaysia the go-to country for medical tourists seeking a health care experience (and holiday excursion) where food is Halal and prayer rooms are available.
At the moment the most popular health service in Malaysia is a routine check-up and screening, but as the nation develops its medical tourism infrastructure, surgery – already much cheaper than what’s available in Singapore or Thailand – could bring thousands more medical tourists to Malaysia.
If you're planning a trip abroad for medical purposes, get in touch with us to discuss your insurance options. Medical procedures overseas may be much cheaper than your home town but these can still add up quickly so it's best to be covered for any scenario.