Friday, August 16, 2013, 07:31
Asia Weekly: Ticket to health
By Sudeshna Sarkarin Kolkata

Asia Weekly: Ticket to health 


Asia’s high quality, low-cost hospitals and clinics are attracting increasing numbers of patients from around the globe

Asudden downpour has brought respite to sweltering Bengaluru city (formerly Bangalore), bringing the temperature down to a pleasant 24 C. But for the travel desk at Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospitals — the Indian medical group which performs the highest number of pediatric heart surgeries in the world — it is a nightmare.

Heavy rain means interminable traffic jams in this southern metropolis, which could throw the hospital schedule out of gear, especially with patients flying in from nearly 50 countries. And some of these patient could be just days old, babies born with heart defects and needing immediate corrective surgery for survival.

In another part of the world, there’s a flurry of activity at the newly opened Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council Concierge and Lounge at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. A Saudi Arabian visitor is picking up the brochures available on medical facilities while an Indonesian family is seeking information on orthopedic and cardiac treatments. On the line is a caller asking where to go for burn injuries.

Meanwhile, at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, the Shrestha family from Nepal is huddled over a map. It is not the usual city guide showing places of tourist attraction but one detailing the route to the Bumrungrad International Hospital, a major destination for expatriates, tourists and medical travelers, who account for nearly 40 percent of patients there.

Travel, airports, visitors, transport and hospitals. These are the key components in a fast-growing phenomenon once called medical tourism and now rebranded as “medical value travel” as travelers seeking medical care are surging in one direction that promises quality treatment at low cost — Asia.

“Cost is a major factor for people choosing to go to Asian cities for medical treatment,” says Josef Woodman, CEO and founder of the North Carolina-based Patients Beyond Borders, publishers of print, online and mobile resources for international health travelers.

Asia Weekly: Ticket to health
Indian doctors perform surgery on a child at a hospital in Gurgaon on the outskirts of New Delhi. Asia is expected to welcome 10 million medical tourists by 2015 with India, Thailand and Singapore controlling the majority of the market share. (AFP)

“I had a full executive checkup in Busan, South Korea for $1,300. The same treatment would have cost $9,000 in the US. Even after paying my airfare and hotel bill I saved money.”

If the costs of medical procedures in the US are regarded as the benchmark, Patients Beyond Borders, Woodman’s flagship publication, says treatments in India are 65-90 percent cheaper, 65-80 percent cheaper in Malaysia and 50-70 percent in Thailand.

Of the 11 top medical destinations in the world cited by Patients Beyond Borders, six are in Asia: India, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.

Besides affordability, the other reasons for their rising eminence are the “history of healthcare innovation and achievement; availability of internationally trained, experienced medical staff; and government and private sector investment in healthcare infrastructure”.

“Singapore is ranked sixth (in the world) by the World Health Organization (WHO) and number one in Asia where healthcare services are concerned,” says Foo Min Meng, senior manager of hospital marketing at Raffles Hospital in Singapore, referring to WHO’s only study on the subject in 2000. Foreigners make up approximately one-third of the total number of patients at Raffles.

“So it becomes an obvious choice for quality healthcare services,” Foo adds.

Her analysis is echoed by experts from other Asian hubs.

“India produces the largest number of doctors,” says Dr Devi Shetty, founder and chair of Narayana Hrudayalaya, which offers cardiac surgery at rock-bottom cost.

“The best doctors in the US and UK are from India. At one time the British National Health Service was run by Indian doctors. We have established ourselves as trusted healthcare providers.”

Thailand has a strong medical history, according to Kenneth Mays, hospital marketing director at Bumrungrad.

“Thailand is blessed with very good doctors,” Mays says from his Bangkok office. “Many go overseas for specialized training and come back to work at home, so there’s no brain drain.”

A growing number of Asian hospitals also boast the Joint Commission International (JCI) certification issued by the US Joint Commission, indicating they have attained international standards in patient safety and quality improvement. Thailand has 45 JCI-accredited hospitals and healthcare programs, South Korea 38, India and Taiwan 22 each, Singapore 21, and Malaysia eight.

Realizing the potential of medical value tourism as a revenue driver — in Thailand, for example, the industry is growing annually at 16 percent with the kingdom targeting 100 billion baht ($3.27 billion) by 2015 — many Asian governments are playing an active role in boosting the sector.

The Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) was established under the Ministry of Health in 2009 as the primary agency to develop the healthcare travel industry and promote the country as the healthcare destination of choice in the region.

“While the healthcare travel industry will be private sector driven, the government (has) an active role to facilitate its growth,” says Dr Mary Wong, chief executive officer at MHTC. “MHTC becomes a one-stop center for all matters relating to healthcare travel.”

In Singapore, the government’s 10-year vision for 2015 is to bring in 17 million tourists, generate S$30 billion ($24 billion) in tourism receipts and create 100,000 new jobs in the services sector, which includes education and healthcare. The government has also created a S$2 billion tourism development fund to improve infrastructure.

“In this global economic slowdown when every other industry future seems bleak, the medical tourism industry is the one sector whose present is bright and future seems even brighter,” says market research and information analysis agency Renub Research.

Its forecast, Asia Medical Tourism Analysis and Forecast to 2015, expects Asia to welcome 10 million medical tourists by 2015 with Thailand, India and Singapore controlling more than 80 percent of the market share.

As the market booms, the satellite industries it has been nurturing are evolving too. Organizations to facilitate medical travel are mushrooming, together with hotels, transport services and interpreters.

Adrian Myram is the chief operating officer at AllMedicalTourism.com, an online company founded in 2008 with its administrative office in Singapore.

“We use online marketing to introduce patients to healthcare providers all over the world covering a broad range of procedures,” Myram says.

The agency finds prospective patients from the Internet, vets them and matches them with diagnostic centers that fit their requirements. For the service, it collects a one-time fee from the medical center.

While over 55 percent of the patients who consult the company come from the US, many patients choose care providers in India, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia.

“These are the core destinations in Asia which have the infrastructure, are geared up to attract patients seeking treatment and generally have higher conversion rates,” Myram says. “This is where patients want to travel to after they have done their research.”

In the last five years, Myram says he has seen the market continually evolving. “Patients are traveling based on their comfort zones. These comfort zones have shifted and will always shift with political and economic changes,” he explains.

Like mainstream tourism, medical tourism is also dependent on political stability. However, that is often more a matter of perception.

“There are short-time effects, like in Thailand in 2010 when there was political instability,” Bumrungrad’s Mays says. “Or when there are natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and floods. But the setbacks are temporary; patients come back if they think the destination offers quality medical services.

Besides, adds Woodman from Patients Beyond Borders, even in times of turmoil, there have been no reported cases of patients coming to harm during medical travel.

“You don’t see patients roving around on the streets,” he says. “Hospitals take care of their patients, providing a layer of insulation.”

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