In the Market for Medicine

medical tourism

Asia’s transformation in the healthcare sector is leading to a boom in medical tourism – the phenomenon where people travel overseas to receive medical treatment – in developing countries


Text Alex Campbell


Travelling abroad to seek healthcare is certainly not new. For centuries, people have travelled far and wide in search of cures and healing. In the past decade, the phrase was coined as something of a sector “buzzword”. Until recently, medical tourism has been largely reserved for the affluent from less-developed countries, who have journeyed to developed countries such as Singapore to seek out better treatment and patient care.

Singapore remains the top dog in medical tourism in Asia, according to data from a medical tourism index released in May this year, ranking Singapore as the most attractive among seven Asian countries for “patient experience”. But – it scored low for its high medical costs.

It is of little surprise, then, that other Asian countries are hot on the island state’s heels for a piece of what is an increasingly lucrative pie. Healthcare infrastructure in several developing countries in Asia has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years, providing more affordable healthcare compared to that of developed nations.

As such, the reverse is now on trend: Medical tourism is no longer reserved for the elite; many people are travelling to developing nations to receive medical care, attracted by lower costs – and India and Thailand are countries to watch.


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Thailand has an established reputation for attentive service, and so it is of little wonder that Bangkok has become one of the established medical tourism hubs in Asia – particularly given cheaper accommodation costs when compared to Singapore, and other big medical tourism players, such as the United Arab Emirates. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) began promoting medical tourism in 2004, with a detailed medical tourism website that lists a host of popular treatments available, ranging from dental work to dermatology and cosmetic surgery.

A 2016 report  by the Oxford Business Group revealed that medical tourism in Thailand maintained its record of growth, with foreign patient numbers up 10.2 percent year-on-year,  representing six percent of arrivals in 2015. It is estimated that the income from medical tourism comprises 0.4 percent of the national GDP.

In August this year, TAT organised the “Amazing Thailand Health and Wellness Tourism Showcase 2017”, under the concept “Thailand: A Paradise for Longevity”. Thailand now has 58 Joint Commission International (JCI)-accredited hospitals – more than any other Southeast Asian country. The Thai government recently introduced new policies that extend the visitor stay period to 90 days (for select countries), to accommodate the increasing number of medical tourists.


A doctor examining a patient in Mumbai, India. (Photo © Yvdalmia)


India is another booming medical hub. Many Indian doctors are returning home from abroad, following a medical “brain drain” in previous decades. Once drawn to the US and Europe to increase their earnings, the current tightening of the UK’s NHS budgets and US healthcare regulations is motivating many Indian health professionals to return – armed with a wealth of overseas experience.

Chennai is experiencing a surge in the number of corporate hospitals. In India more generally, the medical tourism industry is estimated to have seen more than 20-percent annual growth between 2013 and 2015, according to a report by market research firm RNCOS.

As of 2015, India’s medical tourism sector was estimated to be valued at USD3 billion, with projected growth to between USD7 to 8 billion by 2020. The country also attracts huge numbers of visitors for alternative treatment options, such as yoga and Ayurvedic medicine.

The combination of lower costs, improved healthcare facilities and a high standard of medical expertise is positioning India and Thailand as medical tourism leaders – giving the more established medical tourism hubs a run for their money.

See more stories and photographs from this issue

In this issue, we unpack several health controversies and crises, from MSG to processed foods to the insect food revolution and diabetes. But it’s not all doom and gloom: The region’s varied cuisine is an intangible part of its heritage. We pay homage to the enduring art of the longevity noodle – handmade and visually evocative. Asia’s food culture is perhaps best summed up through the humble hawker, peddling the sheer diversity of this region’s culinary innovation through their roadside food carts.


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