Medical tourism refers to leisure travel which incorporates health-related activities into the service, e.g., health checks, conventional medical treatments and other alternative medical programs plus, perhaps, traditional Thai massage and spas. Average spending in this market is thus higher than in other conventional tourism. Medical tourism is poised to flourish rapidly in the midst of the prevailing health-consciousness trend. Thailand is one of the four Asian countries being recognized as a medical tourism venue by international visitors including visitors from Europe, the US, the Middle East and Asia. This reputation can be attributed to several favorable factors, especially, affordable medical bills and treatment standards that are on a par with those in Europe, the US and Australia, as well as having a shorter outpatient waiting list.
Medical tourism in Thailand is mostly concentrated in Bangkok and other key tourist destinations including Phuket, Pattaya and Chiang Mai where medical services and tourism-related infrastructure is available. Among the most sought-after medical services foreign tourists seek while visiting Thailand are health checks, LASIK surgery, plastic surgery, dental services, surgical operations and rehabilitation. As for alternative treatments, internationally acclaimed traditional Thai massage and spa centers have attracted a large number of foreign tourists to Thailand.
Given the wide coverage of medical tourism, it is quite hard to determine exactly the size of the medical tourism market. Based on the statistics on foreign patients at Thai private hospitals, preliminary estimates on the size of this market are that 60 percent of them are expatriates working in Thailand and the rest are foreign tourists coming here for the specific purpose of medical treatments.
In 2001, the number of foreign patients at local private hospitals totaled 550,161 and rose to 1,249,984 in 2005. This represents an annual increase of 24 percent on average over the years 2001-2005. With this trend and other numerous favorable factors for a growing number of foreign patients at leading private hospitals, KASIKORN RESEARCH CENTER (KResearch) forecasts that the number of expatriates residing here and foreign visitors using medical services at local private hospitals are likely to grow 12 percent and 10 percent respectively, to around 1.4 million and 1.54 million cases in 2006 and 2007.
From the forecast total number of 1.54 million foreign national cases treated in Thai hospitals, it is projected that 616,000 cases will be foreign visitors who come here to specifically to get medical treatments at Thai private hospitals, where we would earn medical service income of around THB16 billion aside from their spending on tourism, which is estimated at around THB20 billion.
It is forecast that in 2007, foreign tourists traveling here to use medical services at Thai private hospitals will create income to the country totaling around THB36 billion.
The health tourism market of Thailand is trending toward substantial growth and although it faces intensifying competition from neighboring countries in Asia, i.e., Singapore, Malaysia and India, the gentle and mild nature of Thais in service work has created a favorable impression with visitors. In addition, Thai private hospitals have become proficient in specialized medical services at international standards, while medical service charges in Thailand are half those found in Singapore. Moreover, Thailand also has tourism potential with a wide variety of pleasant tourism venues in all regions, and readiness in tourism-support services.
Important target markets for health tourists coming to use medical services at Thai hospital are Japan and the Middle East. For Japan, there are a lot of Japanese working in Thailand and in nearby countries. The Japanese government permits them to claim medical expenses paid for in overseas hospitals. As for the Middle East market, more and more people from the Middle East have turned to using Asian medical services, including Thailand, since finding that they faced problems in obtaining visas to the US or Europe after September 11, 2001. Malaysia often gives significance on the Middle East market because Middle Easterners have high purchasing power and Malaysia is also a Muslim country.
The expanding medical tourism market brings not only handsome income from medical services, but also tourism revenue to our country. Medical service patients and their families accompanying them tend to take in tourism attractions while here, so this creates income for Thailand as well. Some private hospitals have business alliances with leading tourism companies and others who are allowed to set up counters in hospitals and offer domestic package tours to such patients and their relatives. Many hospitals have expanded their investments into such businesses as accommodations, e.g., serviced apartments and health tourism businesses.
Moreover, there has been expansion in health services for foreigners outside hospitals at major tourist destinations such as Phuket and Chiang Mai, e.g., dental clinics and cosmetic plastic surgery clinics that meet international standards; these businesses are growing swiftly.
Medical tourism offers both medical services provided by hospitals and external facilities and tourism that are tending to exhibit high growth and high income; they will prosper further if the government sector supports them by negotiating with other countries. Such a strategy could expand the medical tourism market to countries that provide medical welfare benefits to their citizens, such as England, Japan and the Scandinavian countries. Moreover, the authorities should make regulations more convenient for foreign patients coming here. Meanwhile, the private sector, i.e., private hospitals, non-hospital medical service business, and alternative medicine businesses – along with tourism businesses – have to develop further to better meet international standards. In addition, the private sector should prepare adequate personnel and equipment, and control service quality to create long-term confidence toward Thai medical services and charge reasonable prices, but avoid price cutting competition.