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An Introduction to Medical Tourism

Jun 25, 2020
Devi Bajaj

What Is Medical Tourism?

Simply put, medical tourism is when people travel abroad for medical treatment. There are many reasons for this, including cost, quality of care, and quality of service. Thailand has been on the map for medical tourism since the 1990s, and today it is one of the top medical tourism destinations in the world. 

It’s more cost effective to have treatments in Thailand than in most of the western world; it’s filled with internationally trained medical professionals; and, the quality of care and service is just as good, if not better, than many other destinations. The Thai people are known for their hospitality and openness, which is demonstrated through the warm nature of the staff in the healthcare industry. 

As alluded to above, surgical procedures performed in medical tourism destinations cost a fraction of the price they do in other countries. For example, the average price of a heart bypass surgery in the US is $123,000, whereas in Thailand it’s only $17,000. That's 86% cheaper!

magnets from different places travel medical tourism

Why Does Medical Tourism Exist? How Did It Come About?

There are so many factors, but the main ones have been mentioned above. To elaborate, some of the reasons are: (1) high cost in home countries, (2) long wait times for certain procedures, (3) the ease and affordability of international travel, (4) and improvements in both technology and standards of care in many countries.

What Are the Benefits of Medical Tourism? What Are the Drawbacks or Challenges?

While benefits can vary based on the situation at hand, here are some of the most common benefits of medical tourism:

  • Cheaper medical care without compromising quality or service
  • Nowadays, international travel is trouble-free and reasonably priced 
  • Global standards of care and technological advancements in healthcare are rapidly improving all over the world
  • Improved communication opportunities make it easier to find and contact medical centers overseas

However, as with anything involving international travel and costly, complex medical procedures there are some challenges that much be kept in mind:

  • Sometimes language may be an issue (although, this is solvable with interpreters
  • Flying after surgery can increase risk for blood clots (so patients would need to stay put in the country they opt to go to for treatment for a couple weeks to be safe)

My Experience With Medical Tourism

I started my career at Bumrungrad International Hospital, the first JCI accredited hospital in Asia, where every day that I went to work I heard a variety of languages from the hospital's patients. (The Joint Commission International [JCI] is the industry standard in global healthcare, where facilities are benchmarked against US standards and practices.) The hospital was surrounded by patients from all parts of the world including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Kenya to name a few.

The hospital saw an increasing influx of patients from Myanmar and decided to open Bumrungrad Clinic Yangon. Essentially, it is a Diagnostic Checkup Center primarily used to diagnose medical conditions locally in Yangon, from where the center sends referrals downstream for treatment to the main campus in Bangkok. 

Yangon to Bangkok is less than a two-hour flight (same for Bangladesh and Ho Chi Minh), so it makes sense that they would choose Bangkok. But, you may wonder why people were choosing to fly all the way from Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman (average flights of six hours), or Kenya (nine hours).

The governments of the Middle East had allocated a sizable budget to send their citizens abroad for treatment, so when the patients would come to Bangkok with a Letter of Guarantee of Payment, they would not have to pay a single cent out of pocket. 

With regards to Kenya, Thailand and Kenya have had a long relationship together, and in 2019 the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which marks a significant milestone for health collaboration between the two countries. Overall, Kenyans come to Thailand for medical care because of cost and quality of service.

Starting My Own Medical Tourism Company

During my time at Bumrungrad, I saw that there are many “agents” that send patients to the hospital for medical appointments, but there isn't a one-stop service solution. This is what prompted me to start my own company, Enliven, a comprehensive health and wellness concierge and consultancy service. 

We handle everything from medical visas, flights, accommodation, translators, and we even offer a butler service. We handhold our patients through the process so they receive seamless service; for example we will have an Enliven representative arrive at the facility to pre-register for the patient so when he/she arrives, the wait time is minimal. Also, because there may be a language barrier at times, we work with the hospital to arrange interpreters so that patients are comfortable speaking with someone who speaks their same language. 

Food is also a big part of comfort, so our butler service can arrange for the patient to have meals that they are used to eating back home. We work with Bumrungrad, but we also have other facilities in our network such as Samitivej Hospitals, Better Being Hospital (for functional medicine), Suvarnaveda (for ayurveda), and Form Physio and Rehab (for physiotherapy), to name a few. 

Enliven prides itself in partnering with the most skilled experts, and we do our best to match patients with the best-fit physician or specialist for their needs. We see patients from South and Southeast Asia, Africa, the USA, and are now expanding our reach into the Middle East. We work with facilities not only in Thailand, but also in Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and Germany to ensure we cover all our bases.

While comprehensive services like the one we offer are not common yet, it wouldn’t surprise me that further medical globalization will bring with it more options and opportunities for patients looking to satisfy their medical needs from all around the world. 

hospital front desk waiting area medical tourism travel

What Is the Next Stage of Medical Tourism Globally? 

Aside from more comprehensive and holistic patient services, I think the future of medical tourism lies in telemedicine, which is inevitable as we move deeper into the digital world. Telemedicine refers to the practice of caring for patients remotely when the provider and patient are not physically present with each other. So, essentially a video call. 

There are a lot of companies that have already started this such as ZocDoc in the US and BookDoc here in Asia. Although we are moving toward this more scalable form of healthcare, I personally believe nothing can replace the human touch factor. There's something about physically meeting a doctor in person that makes the experience of an appointment more personal, and this will always hold value.

You can learn more about Enliven by following along on Facebook and Instagram at @enlivenconcierge.