Friday, August 16, 2013, 10:05
Asia Weekly: More than temples and beaches
By Jennifer Lo in Hong Kong and Sudeshna Sarkar in Kolkata

While her father was alive, Nepal’s former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Sujata Koirala, had a personal phone book including contact details of the top heart and lung hospitals in three countries — Thailand, India and Nepal.

In 2006, when her father, Girija Prasad Koirala, the octogenarian patriarch who had been prime minister of Nepal several times, fell ill, she instantly thought of the Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok. The Thai hospital then received Nepal’s best known statesman as its patient.

A regular flow of medical tourists from Nepal, including celebrity patients like Koirala, travel to Bangkok for medical services every year. To cope with the extra demand, Bumrungrad opened a representative office in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.

"Daily, we have about five to six queries about heart and cancer care as well as medical checkups,” says Dinesh Prasad Shrestha, who heads the Kathmandu office. “In addition, many Nepalese go to the hospital on their own directly.”

Established in 1972, Bangkok Hospital was one of the first private hospitals in Thailand. Dieter Burckhardt, the hospital’s assistant marketing communications and branding manager, explains the major causes why medical tourists flock to Thailand.

High standards

"The reason for Thailand’s success in medical tourism is its ability to satisfy the key requirements people often have when considering global healthcare. These are medical expertise and high levels of service combined with Thai hospitality.”

Burckhardt says there is an increase in the number of patients coming from countries with long waiting times for surgical procedures.

"Orthopedic services saw a rapid increase as these procedures could be carried out at a very high standard and treatment could begin upon the patient’s arrival in Thailand. Rehabilitation services subsequently also saw a lot of growth,” he adds.

Also, in sharp contrast to many Western hospitals, Thai hospitals in general provide a much higher level of patient-focused services, he says. They range from higher nurse-to-patient ratios to the full suite of concierge services commonly found in upmarket hotels.

"This, combined with the world-renowned graciousness of Thai hospitality, provides a unique and compassionate care environment,” he says.

The roots of the boom, ironically, can be traced back to the economic crisis of 1977, according to Kenneth Mays, hospital marketing director at Bumrungrad. Opened in 1980, Bumrungrad had invested considerably and expanded only to find the market for premium patients falling in Thailand.

"It was the time the Thai economy went into the bucket,” Mays says. “It was dreadful.

"We’d have failed but for the devaluation of the baht which made Thailand great value for people overseas. The management decided to change its strategy and focus on foreign patients instead of waiting for the economy to improve for survival.”

Bumrungrad has referral offices in nearly 12 destinations, ranging from Bangladesh and Nepal to Ethiopia and the Arab state of Oman. With Japan being one of its largest source countries for patients, there are language services in Japanese as well as Arabic.

Languages available from around 140 interpreters include Cantonese and Mandarin, and the hospital provides cuisines from around the region. Prayer rooms are also available.

Marketing overseas

Bangkok Hospital advertises its services in potential markets through conventional media outlets, like print, TV and radio. It also sends its top surgeons to foreign countries to conduct free seminars and offer medical consultations.

"Public and private projects in developing countries have also been very effective in gaining market recognition,” Burckhardt says.

A unique selling point that Thailand enjoys as a medical destination is the demand for discreet plastic surgery procedures.

"People were seeking elective procedures that they could have while away from their home country, both for the anonymity and the added benefit of a rehabilitation holiday at an idyllic seaside location,” he explains.

With the quality standards being more than sufficient and procedures carrying little risk, Burckhardt says, this segment of medical travel saw immediate growth.

"As Thailand was already a very popular tourism destination, it also became one of the first countries to benefit from the emergence of medical tourism.”

Thailand is also known for its expertise in gender reassignment surgeries.

However, Thailand draws more patients for “serious treatments” like heart and cancer treatments, problems related to the digestive system, liver, neurology and women’s health.

Mays from Bumrungrad also emphasizes the cost factor that makes Thailand such an attractive destination, especially for visitors living within seven to eight hours’ flying distance.

"In general, treatments are about 50 to 70 percent cheaper than the US, 25-30 percent less expensive than Singapore and roughly similar to Malaysia.”

Last year saw the Thai government formulate a policy to develop the Buddhist kingdom further as a medical travel destination.

At the Thailand Medical Hub Export 2012, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced a four-year policy from 2012 to promote Thailand as a hub for medical treatment.

Public Health Minister Witthaya Buranasiri said the government expects the new policy to drum up revenues to 800 billion baht ($25 billion) in the next five years. In early 2012, about 2.5 million foreign tourists came to Thailand, generating revenue worth about 121 billion baht.

To woo well-heeled patients from the Middle East, new regulations now allow nationals from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to stay in Thailand for up to 90 days without a visa. Nationals from South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru are also eligible for the 90-day visa exemption.

According to travel media estimates, 60,000 patients from Oman visited Thailand for medical care in 2012. This year, the number is expected to rise to 75,000, especially with Oman Air adding more weekly flights on the Muscat-Bangkok route.

Mays says wealthy Chinese, who are traveling around the world for medical treatment, are also coming to Thailand.

"We do see a few thousand each year,” he says. “But the situation in China is a bit different. China doesn’t have a severe shortage of doctors, though it may take a bit of time as the hospitals are a little crowded.”

Bumrungrad has a referral office in Hong Kong and plans to open another on the Chinese mainland.

While the challenge for Thailand to maintain its lead as a major medical tourism hub is to keep on improving services to stay ahead of the stiff competition, especially by finding the right people — top doctors, nurses and administrators — Mays underlines the boon it has brought to the country.

This is not just more revenue but something far more important. The flourishing industry has prevented brain drain and succeeded in retaining qualified doctors who choose to come back and practice at home after completing their training abroad.

The writers can be contacted at jennifer@chinadailyhk.com

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