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05BANGKOK6098 MEDICAL TOURISM: OUTSOURCE YOUR KNEE SURGERY TO THAILAND

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“41187”,”9/23/2005 10:04″,”05BANGKOK6098″,

 

“Embassy Bangkok”,”UNCLASSIFIED”,””,

 

“This record is a partial extract of the original cable.

 

The full text of the original cable is not available.

 

231004Z Sep 05

“,”UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 BANGKOK 006098

 

SIPDIS

 

DEPARTMENT PASS USTR FOR BWEISEL AND LCOEN

COMMERCE FOR ITA JBENDER AND JKELLY

 

E.O. 12958: N/A

TAGS: ECON, ETRD

SUBJECT: MEDICAL TOURISM: OUTSOURCE YOUR KNEE SURGERY TO

THAILAND

 

1. Summary: Low costs and high quality medical treatment in

Thailand are bringing in a new breed of visitor, the medical

tourist traveling overseas for treatment unavailable or too

expensive in their own country. Thai hospitals are positioning

themselves to be the regional destination of choice for medical

treatment and are marketing their services to the large number

of uninsured Americans seeking affordable medical care.

Advantages in a combination of price, access, and quality are

driving what could soon be a billion dollar industry for

Thailand. End Summary.

 

2. Thai hospitals have entered in a big way into what has been

dubbed medical tourism, marketing themselves as a cheap source

for medical procedures with a bit of international adventure

thrown in as well. Over one million international patients,

including 118,000 Americans, visited Thai hospitals in 2004 for

everything from hernias to heart surgery, more than double the

number from 2001. Most of these patients were expatriates

living in Thailand or nearby in the region, but approximately

one-third came to Thailand specifically for medical treatment.

The Department of Export Promotion estimates that international

patients spent USD 550 million on health services alone in

2003. When other expenditures such as hotels, post-operation

travel and other purchases are factored in, the industry is

estimated to soon be approaching nearly USD one billion per year

for Thailand.

 

3. The center of medical tourism in Thailand is Bumrungrad

Hospital, an internationally accredited hospital and the largest

private hospital in Southeast Asia. Bumrungrad treated 360,000

foreign patients in 2004, including 50,000 Americans, a number

projected to grow by 30 percent in 2005. Ruben Toral,

Bumrungrad\’s Marketing Director, pitches the hospital abroad as

a source of low-cost medical treatment by internationally

trained doctors in a state-of-the-art facility that more

resembles a five-star hotel than a hospital, complete with a

Starbucks coffee shop in the lobby. Post-op recovery at a spa

on nearby beaches is an added attraction.

 

4. Patients traveling in from overseas for medical treatment

typically come for what Bumrungrad calls the mechanical parts of

surgery: non-emergency medical procedures. Initially, Thai

hospitals were popular for cosmetic surgery and became noted for

their expertise in performing sex change operations, still one

of the top ten surgeries for international patients.

Eventually, however, the hospitals branched into promoting

routine operations such as hip replacements, knee surgery and

vision correction surgery, and have also moved into advanced

heart surgery. Bangkok Hospital recently cut the ribbon on a

new 104-bed heart hospital with international patients very much

on their mind.

 

5. Thailand\’s medical tourism industry got a jumpstart after the

1997 Asian financial crisis forced many hospitals into

bankruptcy. The government cooperated with remaining hospitals

to promote their facilities abroad, searching for a market

unaffected by the crisis. Nearly 30 hospitals now cooperate

with Thailand\’s Department of Export Promotion (DEP), pitching

Thailand\’s international quality hospitals together with its

rock-bottom prices for treatment. The DEP took Thai hospitals

on a road show this year to promote their services, including a

three-day stand as part of the Thai Exhibition at the L.A.

Convention Center this June. The largest Thai hospitals are now

acquiring agents and taking over their own promotion, and DEP is

moving on to promoting Thailand\’s burgeoning spa services

industry.

 

Why replace your hip in Bangkok?

——————————–

 

6. The overwhelming reason for visitors coming to Thailand for

medical treatment is price, particularly for those without

insurance. According to Bumrungrad\’s Toral, the ranks of the

approximately 43 million uninsured in the U.S. include not just

the poorest of the nation, but also a large number of

independent contractors, self-employed, and other small

businesspeople who have substantial resources but for one reason

or another found it too difficult or expensive to obtain

standard medical insurance. For the uninsured in the U.S., a

heart bypass operation might cost from USD 40,000 to over USD

100,000. In Thailand, the same operation would run up a bill of

only about twelve thousand dollars, including the cost of

airfare from the U.S. Although Bumrungrad does deal with

insurance companies for those patients who have insurance, Mr.

Toral noted that over 70 percent of their payments are handled

in cash.

 

7. Thai hospitals are wooing not just the uninsured, but also

those from countries which either have backlogs for

non-emergency medical procedures or do not have the facilities

to perform complicated surgery. Countries with universal health

insurance can often require patients to wait on lists for over a

year for certain procedures, procedures that can be done in

Thailand with only a few days notice. Bangkok Hospital, one of

Bumrungrad\’s biggest competitors in the medical tourism

industry, has begun working on developing insurance plans with

European nations which see the benefit of reducing waiting lists

for operations at home at a relatively low cost.

 

8. According to the Thai Private Hospital Association, the

fastest growing group of medical tourists to Thailand is from

the Middle East. Patients who formerly might have flown to the

U.S. or Europe for medical treatment have found that

post-September 11, 2001, visas are harder to come by and the

welcome mat not always out. From negligible numbers in 2001,

Thai hospitals treated 71,000 Middle Eastern patients in 2004.

Bumrungrad Hospital is taking a 49 percent share in a USD 40

million health care complex in Dubai, intended to be a medical

hub for the Middle East and North Africa.

 

9. One of the factors keeping costs down in Thailand is the

relative paucity of malpractice lawsuits. Malpractice law does

exist in Thailand, and hospitals and doctors carry insurance for

the eventuality, but actual lawsuits are rare and settlements

are low. According to Bumrungrad, the largest malpractice

settlement recorded in Thailand was for one million Baht, about

USD 25,000. Other hospitals couldn\’t remember having ever faced

a lawsuit. As a result, hospitals and doctors are able to keep

medical disputes out of court and negotiate a satisfactory

settlement directly with the aggrieved patient, thereby keeping

insurance costs low.

 

It\’s not just the money

———————–

 

10. Thai hospitals have made their pitch not just in lower

prices, but also superior quality. More than half of Bumrungrad

Hospital\’s 700 physicians and dentists are internationally

trained, including 200 who are board-certified in the U.S. Many

doctors at Bumrungrad are Thais who had previously practiced in

the U.S. or elsewhere overseas, but despite the prospect of much

lower salaries were lured back to Bangkok by the attraction of

practicing in an international quality hospital in their home

country. Some local critics have alleged that the increase in

medical tourism has stolen away the best Thai doctors to treat

foreign patients, but Bumrungrad places more of the blame for

the doctor shortage on Thailand\’s 30 Baht Health Care Program

where patients can make a hospital visit for less than a

dollar. They claim the decline in salaries for doctors in

public hospitals has inspired many Thai doctors to practice in

the more remunerative private hospitals.

 

11. The vast majority of doctors in Thai hospitals are Thai

nationals. Foreign doctors are allowed to practice in Thailand

as long as they are able to pass the Thai medical board exams;

the catch is the exams are only given in the Thai language. In

practice, only a handful of foreign doctors practice in

Thailand, though hospitals are able to maintain non-practicing

foreign doctors on the staff as consultants.

 

Not the only players in the game

——————————–

 

12. According to the Thai Private Hospital Association,

Singapore\’s high quality hospitals have traditionally been the

destination of choice for the region for medical treatment.

Thailand has made inroads into Singapore\’s business with their

offer of substantially lower prices, but the Thais have not been

the only ones in the region to notice the comparative advantage

of developing nations in this industry. India\’s Apollo

Hospitals Group has made a similar bid for international

patients, though Bumrungrad feels Thailand has an advantage in

image over India, \”the cows in the streets issue\”, as Mr. Toral

puts it. China looms large as a potential future competitor for

medical tourism as the Chinese find a way to translate their

low-cost advantage into yet another industry.

 

13. Although the avian flu epidemic had a limited effect on the

number of medical tourist visitors to Thailand, Thai hospitals

fear that a spread of the separatist violence in Thailand\’s

southern provinces to Bangkok or other parts of Thailand could

easily paint the country as an unsafe destination and divert the

stream of medical tourists to other countries.

 

Trade opportunities

——————-

 

14. The expansion in medical services has driven a correlating

expansion in imports of medical equipment and pharmaceutical

products from the U.S. A Department of Commerce study predicted

that the market for medical devices in Thailand, estimated at

USD 518 million for 2004, would grow 15 percent over the next

two years. The U.S. leads the import market with a 34 percent

share. Thai private hospitals import 70 percent of the

pharmaceuticals that they use as well. Ironically, the

pharmaceutical industry\’s differential pricing policy to keep

prices lower for developing countries is yet another factor

keeping medical service costs down for visiting international

patients.

BOYCE

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Written by thaicables

June 21, 2011 at 5:04 am

Posted in Tourism, Unclassified

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