Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thailand's Successful Healthcare Tourism

Thailand’s medical system was revolutionised under former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. One of his key policies was the “30 baht treat all” scheme launched when he came to power in 2001.

The plan meant universal coverage for every single person in Thailand. Every time they visited a doctor, they would pay THB30 ($1). One visit, THB30. Two visits, THB60. This price was regardless of the medical problem they had — be it a slight cold or major heart surgery that was needed, the price would always be the same.


Leisurely healing

Can Arab countries take the low cost healthcare tourism model practised at the Royal Bangkok Hospital and give it the luxury treatment? There’s certainly a potential market for it.

There’s something strange about visiting the Royal Bangkok Hospital in the capital of Thailand. Basically, it doesn’t feel like a hospital, or even smell like one. More like a trip to the Four Seasons Hotel.

“That’s part of the plan,” says the hospital’s CEO Dr Chatree Duangnet.

His “plan” — to attract patients from across the world, enticing them with the ambience of a hotel but the care of a top class hospital, certainly seems to be paying off. A staggering 14% of its daily outpatients — well over 300 a day — are from the Arab world, mostly the UAE. They have come here for a holiday combined with either medical treatment or just an annual check up.

Royal Bangkok Hospital is living proof that medical tourism is big and booming. “We are a private hospital and the way forward for private hospitals is to change the way they operate. It is not enough to just be functional and have the best medical facilities. You have to attract people with the kind of accommodation and facilities that you would expect at a five-star hotel,” says Dr Duangnet.

With a market capitalisation of over $1bn, the strategy is paying off. Holding company the Bangkok Dusit has over 10,000 staff and 17 hospitals in Thailand. Two more have opened in Cambodia and the next stop will be Abu Dhabi, as the company looks to capitalise in the number of Arabs seeking Asian-style healthcare.

“We have Arabic speakers and we train our staff to respect Arab cultures. With over 300 a day coming here, it is has become a big part of our business and now we are confident we can do the same in Abu Dhabi, because we have a strong client base. It isn’t about just coming here when you have a problem, but coming on a regular basis for a complete medical check up,” he says.

Thailand’s medical system was revolutionised under former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. One of his key policies was the “30 baht treat all” scheme launched when he came to power in 2001.

The plan meant universal coverage for every single person in Thailand. Every time they visited a doctor, they would pay THB30 ($1). One visit, THB30. Two visits, THB60. This price was regardless of the medical problem they had — be it a slight cold or major heart surgery that was needed, the price would always be the same.

This also reduced the expense on healthcare because people were healthier and so as a result were also more fit for work.

Under Thailand’s pre-Shinawatra system, 76% of the population had access to healthcare. A year after he came to power, the figure stood at 96%.

“It resulted in everyone being far more health conscious, but with the loss of their insurance payments many hospitals looked for alternative sources of income. One of the results was a boom in medical tourism, with Thailand earning over $1bn from foreign patients in 2005,” says Dr Duangnet.

Today, the country has well over a million medical tourists a year, and the industry is booming not just here but globally.


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