Medical Tourism

Arab patients in Southeast Asia

Callan Emery
travelled to Southeast Asia and visited several leading hospitals in 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, and the 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 in abundance.

“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 Americas).

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 patients.

“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 individuals who 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 prayer facilities.”

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 (JCI) accredited.

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 name a few.

“We pride ourselves in that we attract the country’s best doctors. Bumrungrad is the hospital of choice for Thai doctors,” Mays said.

“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 medical co-ordination.

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 told us.

“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 Kuala Lumpur.

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.

Prince Court

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 Libyan MoH.”

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
Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council

 Date of upload: 20th Nov 2012


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