These days, medical tourism is no longer a strange concept. For various reasons, people deliberately cross other the borders of their country to obtain medical care. Each year, there’s a steady increase in the number of medical tourists worldwide – in 2017, it was estimated by the American Journal of Medicine to be about 14-16 million.
The concept of medical tourism can be traced thousands of years ago when the Greeks traveled from all over the Mediterranean to a place called Epidaurus in the Saronic Bay, a refuge of the healing god Asklepios. Then, starting in the 1950s, medical tourism became popular among wealthy Americans who sought alternative medicine to recover from their illnesses.
The high cost of medical treatment in the United States prompts American patients to go abroad for more cost-effective alternatives. According to the Medical Tourism Association data, the cost of hip replacement surgery in the United States is up to approximately $50,000, while in India it’s only $7,000. As a result, many patients from the US (and other developed countries) have decided to travel to destinations such as India, Brazil, Mexico, and Thailand.
According to sea-globe.com, the medical tourism business in the world is growing at around 25 percent per year, with a total value of $55 billion. Currently, about 50 countries on all continents are known as hotspots for medical travelers.
For now, Asia is the continent that attracts most medical tourists from Europe, America, and Australia. So, what makes Asia more popular in terms of medical tourism compared to other developed countries in the Americas or Europe?
Why is Asia popular as a medical tourism destination?
For recent decades, Asia has undergone significant growths, both economically and socially. In countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, and South Korea, the government’s policies have allowed the nation to experience critical leaps in infrastructure development. Therefore, to a certain extent, the medical treatment here is at the same quality as that in other developed countries, but at much more affordable prices.
In fact, treatment in Southeast Asia is known to be up to 80 percent cheaper when compared to that in the United States and other European countries. This results in a flock of patients from all over the world traveling to Asia, especially Southeast Asia, to seek medical treatment.
The 5 Most Popular Medical Tourism Destinations in Asia
For years, several countries in Asia have been known as hotspots for medical tourists. These include India, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and South Korea. Among them, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore are generally regarded as the more popular ones worldwide.
According to Ghazali Bin Musa, a lecturer in business policy and strategy from the University of Malay: “Most of the tourists who come to these three countries are from neighboring countries – Laos to Thailand, for example. The cultural similarity factor is the main reason. Then, the costs are relatively cheap, so they choose to go for treatment abroad at close range. Plus the rise in cheap flights has resulted in increasingly attractive hospital services in neighboring countries”.
Now, let’s have a closer look at these 5 countries, along with the reasons for their popularity among patients.
Ten years ago, Singapore was the medical tourism center in Southeast Asia. Nowadays, Thailand seems to have won that title. The White Elephant Country has become a popular medical tourism destination, with an average of 550,000 visitors that come for medical treatment each year. These people are from various countries, including Japan, Britain, the Middle East, the United States, Australia, and other Southeast Asian countries.
According to Edelman, the number of foreign patients seeking treatment in Thailand increases from year to year. Specifically, within just 5 years (2007-2012), this number has changed from 400,000 to 700,000. For the past 15 years, the healthcare business in Thailand has been developing rapidly, as the global financial crisis slipped during the 1998 monetary crisis.
Although it faces stiff competition from other Asian countries, especially Malaysia and Singapore, Thailand still remains the champion when it comes to popularity among foreign patients. Since 2012, there have been around 2 million more patients from all over the world visiting the country to experience healthcare services. The medical services that Thailand offers cover numerous categories, ranging from basic dental care to more complicated procedures such as cancer treatment, plastic & cosmetic surgery, etc.
“Medical tourism is big business. Thailand is perhaps the most advanced country in the health tourism sector, with a wide range of services such as air flights, accommodation for family travel and airport pickup, “said Stephen Lock, Edelman’s Head of Public Affairs for Southeast Asia.
The main reason many foreigners visit Thailand to get medical treatment is the relatively affordable costs. For example, the cost of hip replacement surgery in Thailand is half of that in the United States. Moreover, Thailand is easily accessed with cheap airline ticket prices from Asian countries and others around the world.
You may be interested in: An In-Depth Guide to Medical Tourism in Thailand.
In addition to Thailand, Malaysia is also one of the most popular medical tourism destinations in Asia. According to the local Ministry of Health, in 2014, the country attracted about 850,000 patients, with a total income of $230 million. The New Straits Times reported that every year, Malaysia received more than 921,500 overseas patients. Most patients come from neighboring countries, including Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, India, Japan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Middle East, Australia, and Europe as well.
Currently, the most popular health service in Malaysia is routine health check-ups. In addition, the country is also known for other medical treatment, including heart disease, cancer care, and liposuction. Communication issue is not something to be worried about, as medical staffs in Malaysian hospitals are generally proficient in English.
Singapore on average welcomes 550,000 patients from other countries each year, including Indonesia, Philippines, Australia, North America, and Europe. The Lion Country is arguably quite aggressive in encouraging the development of health services. In 2014, Bloomberg ranked Singapore as the 51st best healthcare system in the world.
With high-quality infrastructure and services, it’s no doubt that Singapore’s medical treatment is relatively expensive compared to its neighbors, namely Malaysia and Thailand. However, compared to other developed countries such as the United States and Europe, the medical costs of Singapore is still pretty low. For example, knee replacement surgery can cost up to $53,000 in the United States; in Singapore, it only costs $13,000.
The country itself has more than 15 hospitals specializing in treating foreign patients, with a team of medical staffs that can speak English quite well. Singapore is a well-known destination for patients with heart disease, urology, dental care, digestive problems, and cancer.
India accounts for 85 percent of the medical tourism market in Asia. The country has become one of the preferred destinations globally due to its advanced health technology and doctors’ qualifications, which are comparable to those in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.
India is one of the most popular medical tourism destinations in Asia, maybe even the whole world. The reason is that the cost of medical treatment here is quite affordable for foreign patients, while the quality of services is still very impressive. The country has 27 hospitals that are accredited with the Joint Commission International (JCI).
Patients visit India for various medical procedures, such as bone surgery, heart disease, cancer, fertility problems, and organ transplants.
5. South Korea
For those who want to carry out aesthetic medicine treatment, South Korea is one of the top picks. For years, the East Asia country has been actively promoting itself as a destination for patients seeking plastic and cosmetic surgery.
Not only superior in terms of medical care, South Korea is also proud as a leader in technological progress. This is proven by the impressive number of hospitals that offer all-digital services, with easy-to-access computer records. One more thing: unlike most other medical tourism destinations in Asia, where the weather is hot and humid, South Korea has a cold climate, which is appealing to many patients.
Most popular medical treatments in Asia
Overseas patients come to Asia in search of various treatments. Some of these include In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), dental care, cancer treatment, cardiac medicine, heart surgery, neurosurgery, orthopedics, ophthalmology treatment, etc.
According to Travel Wire Asia, the most popular procedures performed by patients on medical travel trips are cosmetic surgery, dental care procedures, cardiac surgery, bone surgery, cancer, reproductive treatment (fertility, IVF, women’s health), and weight loss surgery.
Medical tourism has grown to be a real business worldwide. Its popularity is the result of an increasing number of patients searching for high quality, affordable, and accessible healthcare. Right now, most medical travel hotspots are found in Asia, with the 5 above-mentioned countries as the most popular medical tourism destinations.
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