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Thailand 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: MEDICAL TOURISM

Medical tourism is a hugely lucrative sector that Thailand is hoping to gain a larger market in.

Thailand is fast emerging as a medical hub; not only for the Southeast Asian region, but also globally, attracting visitors from all four corners of the world. The country's high-quality medical facilities, trusted and affordable services, and great connectivity within ASEAN, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and the vast Chinese and Japanese markets, have helped the local medical tourism industry flourish, pumping around USD5 billion annually into the economy.

These factors have pushed Thailand within the top three medical practice destinations within Asia, alongside India and Singapore; with the trio occupying 90% of the continent's market share. More importantly, this success points to a booming healthcare industry, which is spurred by consistent growth in the private sector.
In 2015, medical tourism generated USD3 billion in income from private medical groups that are listed on Thailand's stock exchange—an increase of 15% YoY. These sums contributed to a total of 2.8 million medical treatments offered to foreign patients by Thai private hospitals—an increase of 10.2% YoY. In terms of patient numbers (given that many require multiple treatments), these are expected to have hit 1.9 million foreigners in 2015. While these figures include foreign expatriates living in Thailand, a significant proportion—up to 50% according to the WHO—made the journey specifically to get treatment, thereby contributing to the 29.8 million tourists the country welcomed in 2015.

Recognizing this potential, private hospital groups across the country are increasingly tailoring their services to meet this growing demand. One such is Bumrungrad International Hospital, which saw its opportunity to be the first hospital in Asia to be accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI) back in 2002. In 2015, Bumrungrad attracted over 250,000 medical tourists as a result of its efforts to boost core markets such as the Middle East, the US, Central Asia, and Australia. Over 30 other hospitals across Thailand have since followed suit in winning their JCI accreditation, including 24 belonging to Bangkok Dusit Medical Services group; the fifth largest medical group in the world with a market capitalization of USD8.4 billion.

Nonetheless such demand has led to fierce competition amongst healthcare providers, particularly in Bangkok, which is forcing the sector to be innovative and creative in attracting new patients. In an interview given exclusively to TBY, CEO of Vibhavadi Medical Centre, Chaiyasith Viriyametakul, explained that the group would be expanding around the Chiang Mai region to cater for a rather niche clientele: senior citizens. “Senior citizens, as well as Japanese and Chinese visitors, are a huge market for us as they consider Thailand a key retirement destination. As such we have a large piece of land in Chiang Mai, where we intend to build a complex with a hospital, hotel, and staff residences to accommodate them."

Similarly, Viriyametakul notes that he sees huge growth potential in Thailand's border regions following the opening of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in January 2016. With healthcare standards in the region significantly worse, the integration of the bloc into a single market is likely to spur an influx of cross-border patients. This view is indeed shared by public medical agencies in Thailand, and, therefore, driving the government's future strategy on medical tourism. In an exclusive interview with TBY, Chumpol Piamsomboon, the President of the Heart Association of Thailand under Royal Patronage, explains: “2016 will be a game-changer for the local health sector. The AEC will ease the access of patients from neighboring countries to Thailand's health facilities. At present, we already receive a large number of patients from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam ... [and] expect this number to increase significantly. Our strategy, therefore, will be to work intensively on improving the healthcare standards along the Thai border."