Sociology Index

Medical Tourism In Thailand

Medical Tourism

Thailand made its name as a medical destination in the 1970's. Thailand offers top-quality medical care, extremely low cost and a free trip to the beach. Open-heart surgery much less at Bumrungrad, rather than the tens of thousands of dollars it might cost in the United States. An outpatient consultation is generally less than $10. A complete cardiac examination, including a full range of tests, costs about $100. The average hospital bed costs $50 a night.

Thailand is known for sex-change operations known more formally as gender reassignment surgery, or G.R.S. and a favourite place for people who want to look like Bo Derek. Thailand has turned to what it calls comprehensive medical tourism, offering services that range from dental care to cancer treatments.

Thai Chamber of Commerce has established its own health-care promotion agency. The key to this new promotion is the high level of medical care that has emerged here in the past decade or two. The top private hospitals in Bangkok boast foreign-trained and certified doctors and modern medical equipment. They offer an inexpensive alternative to visitors who may need procedures not covered by health insurance or who live in countries with long waiting lists for national health care.

"We thought, listen, we have really excellent medical facilities here and we have excellent holidays," said Teerapol Chotichanapibal, director of Royal Orchid Holidays. "If you can come and get a clean bill of health and then go and enjoy your holiday, what could be better?"

So, in Royal Orchid's glossy "Discover Thailand" brochure, a traveler can choose from options that include a performance of classical dance, a visit to the River Kwai, a Thai cooking class or a seven-hour "Comprehensive Health Examination for Women or Men."

"They'll come for hip replacement or knee replacement or cataracts and, yup, while they're here they'll take a vacation," said Ruben Toral, director of international programs at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok. "They get their cosmetic surgery or their dental work and, boom, they're off to the beach."

On its Web site, Bumrungrad describes the procedures it offers, then adds: "Many Bangkok G.R.S. Center patients extend their visits to include the many sites of Thailand including Bangkok, the northern hilltribe areas of Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai and the beautiful southern islands of Phuket and Koh Samui."

Or it is possible to go directly to Phuket, one of Thailand's premier beach resorts, and check in to the Phuket International Hospital, which advertises, "Bright sun, blue sea, cosmetic surgery."

Curtis J. Schroeder, an American who is Bumrungrad's chief executive officer, said 225,000 foreigners visited the hospital last year, about half of whom live in Thailand. Americans made up 29,000 of the outpatients and more than 30,000 of the inpatients, he said.

With its 554 beds, air of luxury and aggressive marketing, Bumrungrad now dominates Thailand's medical tourism industry and has almost single-handedly shifted the regional hub for medical care from Singapore.

Though two-thirds of its patients are Thais, the hospital caters to foreigners with a concierge service that handles such things as airport transportation, bank transactions, visas and airline tickets.

Since Sept. 11, Mr. Schroeder said, there has been a flood of Middle Eastern patients who now avoid the United States for fear of discrimination. In response, the hospital has hired extra Arabic interpreters, stocked up on Muslim prayer rugs and opened a kitchen serving religiously acceptable halal food.

As much as anything, it is the Starbucks coffee shop that draws comment, along with the McDonald's, the Au Bon Pain, the Japanese restaurant and the mezzanine food court. A bed-ridden patient can order from any of these outlets through room service.

Mr. Schroeder, who was previously the administrator of USC University Hospital in Los Angeles, has been an enthusiasic booster of Thailand's medical tourism.

Medical cost in  Thailand is 15% of identical medical care in the west. American and European educated doctors, using the most modern diagnostic equipment provide the medical plan.

The country has 208 private hospitals, of which only 16 are recommended as suitable for foreigners, though the number is expected to grow. Visa procedures are simple for patients coming for medical treatment, though visitors from many countries are admitted without visas.

Thailand is now treating about one million patients from countries such as Japan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China and the U.S., generating close to $ one billion in revenue. Apart from the U.S., where procedures and hospitalization typically cost four to 10 times as much, patients come from developed countries in Europe. Australians, come mostly for cosmetic surgery which are often combined with a conventional vacation.