Medical Tourism In Thailand And Turning Thailand Into A Medical Mecca

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How The Thai Medical Industry Created Market Demand For Its Services

 

Medical tourism in Thailand is now a well-known term. When the Thai government set out several decades ago to make Thailand the place to go for affordable quality medical treatment, it employed several key strategies.  First, the Asian financial crisis in 1997/98 resulted in a stagnant domestic market with no real opportunities to expand so there was clearly a need to identify new markets.  Second, they had to convince those markets to choose Thai facilities.

The markets they identified were:

 

» People in countries where current health care costs were pricing huge numbers out of the market – in the US for example there are some 40 million people who can’t afford the medical treatment.

» People in countries where current health facilities are inadequate – China and the Middle East have a large number of affluent people who can afford quality medical treatment but they don’t have the facilities at home.

World Events Gave Thailand A Massive Advantage

Then the major catalyst that was September 11 2001 happened….  When western countries subsequently tightened their border security and made it a lot harder for people from the Middle East to get in, medical tourists from that region were forced to look elsewhere. Thailand, quick off the mark, made sure they looked in their direction. In fact, it’s probably fair to say this single event likely did more to boost Thailand’s medical tourism industry than anything else could have done at that time.

The Bali Bombings followed 12 months later along with a spate of other terrorist attacks.  All these brought about even tighter border security in western countries in their wake, leaving those who would have traveled to those countries for medical treatment to make alternative arrangements.  Thailand, who already had the plans on the drawing board, and infrastructure in place, was the ideal alternative.

Figuring Out How To Attract New Medical Tourists

Having found these markets, the next issue was addressing the ‘pain points’.  What would prevent these people from considering Thailand a viable option for medical treatment?  The most important answer – a perception that Thai medical services were dodgy, second rate (‘you get what you pay for’ mentality AKA the ‘pay peanuts, get monkeys’ theory), and definitely not to be trusted.

"To facilitate the process, dedicated national medical tourism agencies were set up to co-ordinate and promote the development of the medical tourism industry."

Following close behind in the turn off stakes were the logistics of travelling halfway around the globe to a country where they speak a foreign language, arranging travel, accommodation, meals, visas and so on.  Combine the two and you can see the problems that confronted Thailand in their quest to turn a developing nation into the major medical hub of the world.

So, what did a country confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles like these do? Dismantle them of course. Brick by brick if necessary, which is exactly what the government and the Thai hospital system methodically set out to do.  To facilitate the process, dedicated national medical tourism agencies were set up to co-ordinate and promote the development of the medical tourism industry.

Overcoming The ‘Dodgy, Second Rate’ Theory

First up, Thailand’s major hospitals, notably Bumrungrad Hospital, started working towards the international accreditation they needed to attract foreign patients.  In 2002, Bumrungrad became the first Asian hospital to obtain JCI accreditation.  By June 2018, the number of JCI accredited Thai clinics and hospitals had risen to 64.  Another hospital, the Paolo Memorial Hospital, carries ISO9001 accreditation.

Hospitals like Bumrungrad also started recruiting internationally trained and accredited Thai doctors who had experience working in foreign countries like the US.  They set up a global network of referral centres where people could ask questions and obtain detailed information about their treatment options. The wheels of change were beginning to turn.

Overcoming The Logistic Hurdles – How Thai Hospitals Have Become Super Efficient Models Of Effective Medical Treatment

Along with addressing the image issues, they also addressed logistics.  What major concerns did foreign patients have about visiting Thailand? There would be:

  • Language barriers
  • Uncertainty about navigating one’s way around the Thai hospital system
  • Immigration arrangements
  • Travel
  • Accommodation

The solutions they came up with to overcome these would ultimately become the hugely popular Thai medical tourism package….

The Thai Medical Tourism Package – What A Medical Tourist To Thailand Can Expect Today

Within the hospitals themselves, a team of multi-lingual guides are standing by to escort patients from doctor’s office to testing facility to dispensary as required.  This ensures patients don’t get lost or waste time. They’re whisked efficiently from place to place, which keeps waiting times down, allows test results to be obtained quickly (which also reduces patient stress levels), appropriate diagnoses made, and treatments started rapidly and competently.

The same super efficient end-to-end services are also available outside the hospital premises.  As soon as a patient makes a booking with many of the top Thai medical facilities it sets in motion a seamless network of professionals who can carry out all of the following services as part of a medical package arrangements:

  • Visa and visa extension services
  • Airport transfers
  • Shopping and shopping guides
  • Tourist guides
  • Interpretation services

Thai hospitals like Bumrungrad also have insurance agreements in place with major global health insurers.  This allows for direct billing or reimbursed billing of eligible procedures, which vastly simplifies the payment process for foreign patients.

Medical Tourism In Thailand Becomes A Multi Billion Dollar Industry

The result of all this tweaking and planning is the development of a package that markets medical treatment in Thailand as an overseas trip that is virtually a luxurious ‘all things taken care of’ holiday in one of the world’s premier tourist destinations!  With a short side trip to a hospital or clinic for a procedure or two. Who can possibly resist that sort of deal, especially when the whole package, including the medical treatment, costs far less than the medical procedure alone does at home?

The Thai health care industry has so successfully created demand for, and marketed, their product that Bumrungrad Hospital alone now treats over half a million foreign patients a year, representing a third of its income.

All of this has come at a cost for Thailand though.  As happens with most good concepts (especially those that make money) other countries have noticed and jumped on the medical tourism bandwagon.  Whilst Charles Colton may have thought that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, for Thailand it’s put them at the proverbial crossroads.  Other countries have been able to match, and better, what they offer, which has no doubt left Thai health care businesses wondering what sort of rabbit they need to pull out of their hat to get ahead again.  It’s clear whatever rabbit that is, it will have to ensure the sector moves with the times, innovates heavily, and comes up with increasingly creative and relevant marketing strategies if it wants to remain competitive.

What Is Thailand Doing To Keep Its Market Share?

Some of the current strategies being undertaken by the Thai government include:

  • Identifying new target markets like the elderly and retirees.  However, other countries have also figured this one out so Thailand will have to work hard to convince more of this market to head there instead of to competitors.

     

  • Increasing attempts to attract regional medical tourists, notably the Chinese and Middle East.  There is fierce competition for these markets too so that’s another area where Thailand needs to come up with a winning strategy to lure them in her direction.

     

  • Improving their visa system by extending short stay visas for citizens of countries identified as good sources for medical tourists.  They’ve also introduced a 10-year visa for people who need to stay for extended treatments, and retirees.

     

  • Encouraging private investment in health care infrastructure.

     

  • Continuing to refine its highly successful alignment of the medical and tourism industries to create better, more attractive medical tourism packages. Ultimately Thailand does still have the edge on her competition when it comes this seamless blending of those industries.

     

  • Running annual Amazing Thailand expos and conducting similar tourism marketing events in their global embassies and offices.  This is an effective enough strategy if the intent is to market to a limited number of people close enough, and interested enough, to attend.  It does however ignore the other 99.99% of the potential market.

Medical tourists seeking treatment for everything from open-heart surgery to fertility treatments have made Thailand and its more than 40 JCI-accredited hospitals a popular destination for medical tourism, attracting an estimated 2.4 million patients in 2017. It seems that Thailand has earned and intends to keep it’s position as one of the top destinations for medical tourism.