Case Study: Thailand

Sat, 09/05/2015 - 13:15

Thailand is the world’s largest medical tourism market, and is more advanced than other leading markets, such as the US, Singapore, India, and Mexico. It is sustaining a health boom which has attracted an annual average of 1.4 million foreign medical patients to seek treatment there since 2010. The medical tourism industry is now worth US$4.7 billion, representing 18% of the country’s GDP, based on the commitment of successive government administrations to sustain the Thai health boom. With periodic cycles of political turmoil – including a military coup in 2014 – healthcare and tourism are Thailand’s main sources of public relations capital internationally, as well as a constant source of foreign income. Medical tourism in Thailand, then, has proven to be quite durable to turmoil.

Price is a key factor. One basic package includes a colonoscopy, MRI screening, blood work, and consultations for minor complaints. The total amounts to US$3,000, less than a quarter of the US fee of US$14,000. Even including travel and accommodation considerations, the total price of this medical treatment in Thailand falls just shy of US$4,500. An angioplasty costs US$57,000 in the US, while the fee drops to about US$13,000 in Thailand, according to data from Global Health and Travel for 2013. Moreover, heart bypasses in Thailand cost less than 10% of the US price, with no drop in quality. Hip replacements in Thailand are half the price of the same operation in the US and a knee replacement a quarter of the US price.

In addition to offering lower costs, Thai hospitals feature a larger number of operating theaters as a matter of course, meaning delays are fewer and shorter. Another tendency is for Thai hospitals to load their service offer with expertise, so as to operate as a “one-stop” shop for a particular health concern. Bangkok General, for instance, has 13 cardiac surgeons, three specialized anesthetists, and a pediatric cardiology unit. Bypass, pacemaker fitting, and valve replacement surgeries all fall within the hospital’s remit, drastically shortening queues for these services.

The “Thai moment” is forward-looking, though, with the sector unwilling to stake continued success on foreign healthcare prices and queues. The Siemens Biograph 64 PET/ CT, image-guided radiotherapy, and even robotic-assisted surgeries – during which movements of a surgeon’s hand are amplified to make procedures less invasive feature in the arsenal of one top hospital. High dose-rate brachytherapy and blood marrow stem-cell transplants are also on offer.


The medical tourism sector easily slots into the government- supported infrastructure already in place to receive foreign visitors to Thailand. Public transport, 30-day visas, and even the Miracle Thailand emergency debit card (issued by the state-owned Krungthai bank) are all factors to ensure that medical tourism extends to the arrivals lane of Bangkok’s massive Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Medical tourism companies also have an overseas reach, with the country’s flagship hospital, Bumrungrad International operating 13 foreign referral branches. Established hospitals also actively take on spa culture and add a clinical dimension. Of the nine major medical tourism clusters identified by the Thai tourism board, the vast majority have an identity as existing holiday locations, which have supplemented their brand with high-quality medical centers.


Bumrungrad International Hospital typifies many of the trends which have made Thailand the leader of the global medical tourism market. Of the 500 doctors in Thai hospitals with American Board certification, 200 work at Bumrungrad. Many more have experience working at hospitals in Europe, Japan, and Australia. With 580 beds, Bumrungrad is the largest private hospital in South-East Asia. It is also the first hospital in Asia to receive JCI accreditation. This certification, approved in 2002, has led the way to JCI accreditation for a further 30 hospitals operating in Thailand. According to Bumrungrad’s annual report, over half of Bumrungrad’s 1.1 million annual patients are international. More than this, though, the institute is capable of riding global medical tourism trends.


The Mexican medical tourism market is projected to rise by 7.3% by 2016. Learning from the experience of other developing countries could help Mexico in designing the best strategy to unlock the potential of medical tourism. All the same, important issues could be addressed before Mexico can make a firm bid for the top spot. The rollout of an integrated, cross-sector electronic record could lift Mexico up a grade in terms of tracking and accountability. Mexico’s expertise and infrastructure are in many ways equal to Thailand’s, with an equally well-founded tourism brand. Additionally, Mexico has several advantages such as the proximity to the US and Europe compared to Thailand, the increasing number of certified hospitals, and many accessible tourist destinations within the country. While Mexico may be at the vanguard of international medical tourism, the sector is in a phase of latency. Technological upgrades, the fostering of cross-sector collaboration, and an upgrade of its documentation processes could all help Mexico to stop playing catch-up and begin leading the field. Finally, more collaboration among private hospitals, government, and academia could be effective in promoting medical tourism.