A receptionist takes a call at the International Medical Centre in Beijing. China is catching up with its Asian peers to become a medical tourism destination, but the sector needs to improve in areas such as marketing and promotion. (AFP)
In 1937, Beijing’s Tongzhou district was a symbol of Chinese resistance against Japanese invasion. Today, it is famous for the Songzhuang art colony, the capital’s biggest and most famous artists’ community with nearly 2,000 residents.
And in a decade’s time, Tongzhou hopes to become a center of medical tourism. The Beijing International Medical Center, which is currently being developed, will include high-end hospitals, research and education institutions, and medicine-related industries.
Away from Beijing, the island province of Hainan has been for years basking in its reputation as a warm holiday destination and an idyllic setting for glamorous events like the Miss World pageant.
Last year, Hainan recorded 33 million visitors, earning tourism revenues of $6 billion.
In two years’ time the tropical paradise hopes to get another boost with the establishment of the Boao Lecheng International Medical Travel Zone, a special area with preferential policies for overseas medical institutions that is intended to help to create another medical tourism destination in China.
Nearly 60,000 Chinese are traveling abroad each year in pursuit of medical and beauty treatments. Other countries in the region that have established themselves as medical hubs have been wooing the yuan wallet with Chinese language services and Chinese cuisine.
However, China is a medical destination as well, says Mark Gilbraith, who leads the China healthcare and life sciences practice at global consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers.
"China’s changing demography will create a large number of potential patients who will seek anti-aging treatment, cancer screening and treatment for chronic diseases,” Gilbraith says.
In 2010, China had 110 million people aged 65 and above. According to United Nations estimates, by 2030, the number will jump to more than 210 million; two decades later, more than a quarter of the population will be 65 plus, increasing the need for medical care.
Gilbraith also sees medical travel in China receiving a boost from regional tourism within China.
"Confidence and expertise are the number one factors drawing medical tourists,” he says. “They are looking for comfort, level of service, cleanliness. They are looking at the nature of the visit: Whether it would be a short or long stay, facilities for the caregivers or family members accompanying them, and the cost.”
For surgery or treatment for non-curable diseases like the last stages of cancer, people would prefer to remain within their comfort zones. This means short travel distances and destinations with familiar culture and languages.
Shanghai and Hainan, Gilbraith says, have designated themselves as medical destinations: “While Shanghai has had more than a head start, Hainan will be positioned to attract medical tourists who want to go to a warm place.”
Last year, Tongzhou saw several agreements between the local government and China State Construction and other institutions to build the Beijing International Medical Center in 2012-13.
Located in Lucheng town, the 15-square-kilometer area medical center is to have a medical university, international nursing hospital, medical simulation training center and a national clinical drug-testing base for research and development.
The plan also includes eight to 10 hospitals that will offer specialized treatment for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurological disorders and reproductive problems. Plus there will be a health club, hotels, shops and upscale residences.
Gilbraith also sees immense potential in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM): “TCM should be central to attracting medical tourists to China. There is a great interest in and demand for TCM with centers having sprung up in the West, the US and Australia. You already have the expertise in China.”
TCM includes a wide range of treatments including acupuncture, herbal medicines, fire cupping (a treatment which entails creating a local suction on the skin with the help of heat or a mechanical device), and massage therapies based on Chinese Taoist and martial art principles.
But despite the bonus of traditional skills, China needs to do a lot to catch up with its Asian peers as a medical tourism destination. Besides establishing the right clinical specialties, it also needs to improve its promotion and marketing.
"China has to find its strengths,” Gilbraith says. “South Korea, for example, has established itself as a favorite destination for plastic surgery. The Philippines plays on its strength of English-speaking doctors and a tropical climate.
"China has the expertise, but care and customer services have to be developed.”
He thinks there should be a phased approach to building up the country as a medical destination: “In the first stage, outbound medical tourists should be reclaimed. The focus should then be on getting international tourists.”
AllMedicalTourism.com, a web-based agency based in Singapore that matches prospective patients with healthcare providers, says there is a lot of interest in China, especially in the United States, from those who already have a China connection.
"Perhaps a family link or those who are traveling to China for business,” suggests Adrian Myram, chief operating officer at AllMedicalTourism.com.
But for now, China lacks infrastructure, like the kind available in Thailand, Mexico or India. But trends in the medical travel industry keep on changing.
"People travel within their comfort zones,” Myram echoes Gilbraith. “India has a solid medical tourism infrastructure with Western-trained doctors, good facilities and low costs.
"But recently, Mexico and Costa Rica have caught up. Since they are located closer home and have culture similarities, a lot of US patients are now going there instead of to India.”
South Korea, he adds, is another example: “It is a good medical destination. But because of political unrest, some patients are going to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam instead.”
According to Myram, China has a fantastic opportunity to open its door to this medical traffic. “At the onset of medical tourism, a lot of people wanted to go to China. Now China is taking these steps to create the right infrastructure, we are anticipating a lot of domestic tourists first and then international tourists will follow in larger numbers,” he says.
Taiwan draws patients from the Chinese mainland
By the end of September 2012, Taiwan, boosted by initiatives taken by local administrations, tourism boards and medical institutions, had recorded 81,462 medical visitors.
According to Taiwan’s external trade development council, 50,376 of them were from the Chinese mainland.
Josef Woodman, CEO at Patients Beyond Borders, publishers of exhaustive guides on medical tourism, is excited to launch the new Taiwan edition of Patients Beyond Borders in Mandarin this year.
The guidebook, originally published in 2009, has been updated to provide a detailed overview of leading international hospitals, medical specialties and procedures in Taiwan and is being circulated in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, Taipei and internationally.
Besides quality healthcare, exceptional facilities, and affordable prices, Woodman says Taiwan’s initiative to simplify and expedite the medical visa process for patients from the Chinese mainland has attracted significant numbers of visitors.
A new policy this year allows hospitals to apply for visas for groups of up to 30 mainlanders seeking medical treatment, health screenings and cosmetic procedures.
"While the very rich Chinese go to the US for medical treatment, it means a very long plane ride and is very expensive,” Woodman says. “We are hearing of Chinese patients traveling to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. Dubai is also beginning to see a lot of Chinese patients as Chinese tourism expands.
"However, they are mostly traveling to Taiwan for dentistry and cosmetic surgery, and increasingly for specialty procedures in orthopedics, cardiology, neurology and pulmonary (problems).”
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