Arab patients in Southeast Asia
Callan Emery travelled to Southeast Asia and visited several leading
Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to gain an insight into the level and sophistication of
the region’s health tourism offerings and to gauge the extent of Arab patients
travelling to these destinations.
Southeast Asia is well known around the
world as a super attractive tourism destination
– rich in natural, cultural and leisure
activities, and all imbued with its unique
blend of kind hospitality. Less well known
are its medical tourism attractions – like
the five-star Bumrungrad hospital in
Bangkok and the luxurious Prince Court
Medical Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
With a flood of tourists over the past two
decades, to Thailand and Malaysia in
particular, the hospitality industry in these countries is now well established,
local populace well versed, to manage and
accommodate the millions of foreign visitors
they see each year.
In an effort to sustain the high number
of tourist arrivals which now accounts for a
significant part their GDP (in Thailand
tourism constitutes about 7% of GDP),
national tourism associations are kept on
their toes as they seek to continually find
new aspects to what their country has to
offer and create ever fresh marketing campaigns to highlight the attractions to
the ever-growing band of foreign visitors –
who themselves are becoming more
discerning as they are bombarded with
travel information from an expanding
choice of destinations around the world.
So it should come as no surprise the
tourism associations in the booming
capitals of this region – Bangkok, Kuala
Lumpur and Singapore – have added a
healthcare niche to their tourism offerings
in an effort to broaden the appeal that each of these countries already has
“There are six good reasons why foreign
patients should consider making Thailand
their choice for medical procedures,”
explained Juthaporn Rerngronasa, Deputy
Governor for International Marketing
(Europe, Africa, Middle East and
We were speaking to Rerngronasa and
Yanyong Nopphakhun, Assistant Director
of International Marketing (Europe,
Africa, Middle East and Americas),
Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) at
their office in Bangkok and asked them
why they believed patients would choose
Thailand over other destinations offering
similar medical services for foreign
“Thailand has many internationally
accredited medical facilities,” Rerngronasa
said proudly. “Accreditation and certification
provide a tangible and visible
commitment by the hospital to continually
ensure a safe environment for its
patients and staff.
“Not only do Thailand’s leading medical
facilities achieve the highest international standards, but so do the
work in them. Physicians, surgeons and
nurses have been trained to the highest
levels. Many of these doctors have won
awards for their work and more than 500
Thai doctors practicing in Thai hospitals
are American Board Certified.
“The cost of medical treatments is
significantly lower compared to identical
treatments in the developed world. Take
for example the cost of a heart bypass in
the United States which is around
US$130,000. In Thailand this procedure
performed by skilled and qualified doctors
is $11,000,” Rerngronasa pointed out.
“Most cosmetic treatments are around
50% less in Thailand compared to the US.
In the US a breast augmentation costs
$3,500 to $4,000, as opposed to Thailand
where it costs $2,600 to $3,200.
“There are no waiting lists in Thailand.
One of the great advantages of receiving
medical treatment in Thailand is the ease
with which appointments for treatment
can be made. Thailand hospitals have
numerous operating theatres and enough
qualified surgeons that there is little, if any,
waiting for scheduling for even the most complex and invasive procedures,” she
told Middle East Health.
“Thailand’s medical technology is stateof
the-art,” Nopphakhun added. “And the
level of service is virtually unprecedented
in the world. Many patients and visitors
are pleasantly surprised to find hospitals in
Thailand with excellent restaurants, coffee
shops and personalised room service. The
hospitals themselves offer facilities found
usually in 5-star hotels where patients can
enjoy immaculate private rooms, room
service including Halal food and access to
She noted that the country is also an
excellent destination for relatives and friends
that may accompany or visit the patient.
“But most importantly it is the peoples’
‘Thainess’ and the ability to provide a
warm welcome and supportive care for
their patient and their family that really
sets Thailand apart from other countries.
Combine this with a dedicated Arab
service desk and Arabic speaking staff at
many of the leading medical institutions
and you can see why Middle Eastern
medical visitors are extremely well taken
care of in Thailand.”
These last points were particularly
noticeable when we visited hospitals such
as Bumrungrad International Hospital and
Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital in Bangkok.
Bumrungrad, in particular, which sees
some 460,000 international patients a
year, is renowned in the relatively new
world of medical tourism as one of the
global leaders in this field. Both these
hospitals are like 5-star hotels. They are
luxurious, spacious, immaculately clean
and fitted with the latest technology. The
patient rooms are like smart hotel rooms.
Both are Joint Commission International
The Bangkok Hospital Medical Center
is also in league with this prestigious group.
Speaking to Middle East Health, Kenneth
Mays, Bumrungrad’s Hospital Marketing
Director explained that of the 460,000
international patients from 190 countries
they see each year about 100,000 are local
expats, the other 360,000 fly in. Of these
about 66% come intentionally for medical
treatment, the other third are unintentional,
meaning they require medical
attention while visiting the country for
holiday or business.
“Those who fly in specifically for
medical treatment choose Bumrungrad
because we offer better quality medical
care than they can get at home. We also
offer better value for money. We are about
60-70% less expensive than the US, and
we offer quicker access to care,” Mays said.
“We see a lot of patients from neighbouring
countries who use this hospital as
a regional Centre of Excellence.”
“We see around 120,000 to 130,000 Arab
patients a year,” Mays told Middle East
Health. This was clearly evident when we
visited. There were many Arabs in the plush
lobby, in the hospital library and coffee shop
and other parts of the hospital that we were
shown on a guided tour. “They come mostly
from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and
Oman,” Mays added.
Our initial thought before we visited
Thailand was that most patients visited
the country for cosmetic and aesthetic
surgery and although the country is well
known for this, this is clearly not the
whole picture. Patients come for a wide
variety of treatments in all specialties
including cardiology, oncology, orthopaedics and spinal surgery, neurology, paediatrics and endocrinology, to
“We pride ourselves in that we attract
the country’s best doctors. Bumrungrad is
the hospital of choice for Thai doctors,”
“We provide serviced apartments for accompanying relatives and there is a full
range of hotels in the vicinity,” Mays
explained in response to a question of
how they accommodated the often large
family entourage with which an Arab
patient will travel.
Bumrungrad has an International Medical Co-ordination Team that provides
a comprehensive concierge service, embassy
assistance, VIP airport transfers, international
insurance co-ordination and international
The other leading hospitals we visited in
Bangkok have a similar story.
Arab patients form the largest group of
foreign patients at the luxurious Samitivej
Srinakarin Hospital in Bangkok. We spoke
to Dr Adinun Kittiratanapaibool, the assistant
hospital director, and Ahmed
Afundee, the Arabic Relationship
Manager, who explained that about 20%
of their patients are foreign and that Arabs
comprised about half of this group.
“About 70% of our Arab patients come
from the UAE,” Dr Adinun said.
“The hospital was originally a paediatric
hospital – and as such we offer a complete
range of paediatric services. About five years
ago we expanded to include other specialties
such as orthopaedics and rehabilitation.”
We were shown around this magnificent
hospital and besides the hotel-like suites,
the modern design and general spaciousness,
one thing that was particularly
memorable was a group of young kids
working with physiotherapists in the rehabilitation
centre. You could sense the close
bond that had developed between the
kids and the Thai physiotherapists who
were warm, smiling, gentle and caring –
all-important when working with children.
This is the ‘Thainess’ that Rerngronasa at TAT referred to. And this
is what patients take away with them when
they are finished their treatment – and
then go on to tell their friends and relatives.
All the hospitals we spoke to
remarked that many of their foreign
patients come to them by word of mouth.
“This is our great marketing tool,” Mays
“The Arabic market is important to us,”
explained Samitivej Srinakarin’s Dr
Adinun. “We have a dedicated Arabic
relationship manager. Our website is also
in Arabic and information at the hospital
is also provided in Arabic.”
The number of foreign patients Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital see has
doubled each year for the past two years.
Like the other hospitals we spoke to in
Bangkok, they expect their medical
tourism business to continue growing.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
We travelled to Kuala Lumpur and were
surprised to find that although being a
Muslim country and presumably attractive
to Arabic patients, hospitals there were not
receiving as many Arabic patients as hospitals
we visited in Bangkok. And really there
should be no reason for this as their leading
hospitals are equally modern, hotel-like,
well-equipped and offer a full range of
specialist medical services by well qualified
doctors at equally attractive prices.
Perhaps they are just bit later coming to
the game of marketing themselves as an
international medical tourist destination.
But this looks set to change as the government
has recently set up the Malaysia
Healthcare Travel Council to tackle this
issue and put Malaysia firmly on the map
of global health tourism.
“We need to set up stronger government-
to-government links – between the
ministries of health – between Malaysia
and countries in the Middle East, for
example,” explained Chow Koon Liam,
Manager Medical Tourism and Business
Development at the Institut Jantung
Negara (National Heart Institute) in
Perhaps the newly established Malaysia
Healthcare Travel Council will go some
way to doing this.
“We have been serving the needs of
Malaysians for the past 20 years,” he said of
the JCI-accredited institute which
specialises in cardiology and cardiothoracic
medicine. “We do receive some
foreign patients, but they are mostly from
neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh
and Indonesia – and a few from the Middle
East,” Liam added.
Liam was in jubilant spirits when we spoke to him as the Institute had just been honoured with the Prime Minister’s
national award for innovation – their
remarkable innovation in the field of
paediatric cardiac transplants.
“It is early days for us in this [health
tourism] market, however, we have set up
an international patient centre which
provides a complete service for foreign
patients and our prices are good. The
Ministry of Finance regulates pricing so
there is no dual pricing structure for locals
and foreigners. For example, at the
Institute a 3-artery heart bypass costs
US$12,000; an angioplasty around
$9,000,” he said.
Wan Aznida Wan Azhar, senior executive,
International Business at the super modern
and hotel-like Prince Court Medical
Centre said figures they have for 2010
show they received about 2,700 patients
from the Middle East. Most of them were
from Saudi Arabia and about half were
visiting Malaysia as tourists. “We also see
patients from the UAE and Libya and we
have a working arrangement with the
This hospital is clearly geared up to
receive foreign medical patients. They
provide a full concierge service.
“Our hospital is a good choice for Arabic
patients,” she said, “Malaysia is easy to
access from the Middle East.
“As a Muslim country it is attractive to
Arabs. Many of the hotels are mindful of
the unique needs of Arabs with regards
accommodation and food. And there are
many Malaysian families which have an
Arabic culture. So the link is there.”
She highlighted some of the key specialties of the medical centre. “We offer roboticassisted
surgery. Our Obs-Gyn department
has female doctors, which is preferred by
Arab women and their families. We have
one of the top plastic surgery departments in
the country offering aesthetic and clinical
plastic surgery. Our oncology department is
well respected. We also have orthopaedics,
paediatrics, cardiology, rehabilitation,
endocrinology, nephrology and more. The
IVF department provides elective treatments
in comfort and confidentiality. And
we are considered to be the top burn centre
in the country.”
“We have Arabic-speaking staff and we
expect the growth in the number of Arab
patients to continue,” she added.
At Pantai Hospital in Kuala Lumpur we
spoke to the effervescent Ng Wai Kit,
manager, business development. He sang
the praises of this private tertiary hospital
which is part of the Parkway Group. The
hospital has 5 Centres of Excellence. A new
12-floor wing will be completed in 2014 and
increase bed capacity to 450 beds as well as
house two new Centres of Excellence.
“We don’t see a lot of Arab patients,”
Kit said. “Most of our foreign patients
come from neighbouring countries. We
have a lot of patients from Indonesia and
we’re seeing a lot of growth in this market
with some aggressive marketing.”
Concerning new markets, he said they
would follow the direction of the newly established
Malaysian Health Tourism Council.
“Where they go, we will go,” he said.
We visited several hospitals in Kuala
Lumpur and spoke to their international
patients liaisons. We came away with the
knowledge that Malaysia is well prepared to
enter the increasingly competitive global
medical tourism market. Their leading
hospitals are JCI accredited. They are
modern, well-equipped and staffed with
well trained doctors, surgeons and nurses.
And their prices for medical procedures are
very competitive. Although they are relative
newcomers to this market, they clearly
want to participate and are ready to do so.
The Malaysian Health Tourism Council has
their work cut for them.
Thailand Med Tourism www.thailandmedtourism.com
Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council
of upload: 20th Nov 2012