Where care counts more than money
Thailand redesigns its healthcare programmes to meet the ever-increasing demands of medical tourists
LONG RECOGNISED by foreigners as a haven for cosmetic surgery and dental care at prices far lower than in their home countries, Thailand is now turning its health expertise to top-quality medical treatment, in-vitro fertilisation and rehabilitation as well as holistic wellness programmes tailored for the greying population.
A recent report compiled by Visa and Oxford Economics reveals that the world’s medical tourism industry is generating some US$100 billion (Bt3.3 trillion) and more than 10 million tourists are travelling abroad to get health-related treatments.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has conducted research into medical tourism and discovered that in 2016 Thailand welcomed 66,492 medical tourists from China, England, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, India, Germany, Australia, Vietnam, the US and Qatar.
That has continued to increase, with the growth rate of 13.9 per cent valued at Bt26.4 million.
Famous for specialised treatments and anti-ageing programmes, Thailand ranks among the top 10 medical tourism destinations, along with Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Mexico, Israel, Costa Rica, India and Turkey, according to Patients Beyond Borders. It’s home to 64 hospitals accredited by Joint Commission International, which assures visitors safety and high-quality standards – the highest number in Asean and the fourth in the world.
“In Thailand, we’ve seen that regenerative and anti-ageing programmes, rehabilitation, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and wellness centres are gaining in popularity. Our hospitals and health centres offer a diversity of affordable, quality treatments that cost customers 50 to 70 per cent less than the rates in the US,” says Thapanee Kiatphaibool, executive director of the TAT’s product promotion department.
Medical tourists now pay more attention to quality, standards, experienced specialists, effective treatments, aftercare and translation services, so a cheap price is no longer a powerful magnet.
“Most medical tourists are professionals like entrepreneurs, lawyers and doctors aged between 35 to 45. They come through word-of-mouth recommendations, while some choose to consult a health-related travel agency or the Thai Embassy and also visit the hospitals’ websites. And of course they use social media to search for information rather than believe in advertorial reviews,” Thapanee adds.
“Living expenses in Thailand are relatively low, so medical tourists can spend their free time shopping, sightseeing, having a spa treatment or spending time at the beach.
“Three-star hotels and serviced apartments are the best choice for the middle class planning a longer stay, while the elite prefer to take advantage of five-star accommodation and hospitality.
Well-known for its natural attractions, Chiang Mai is today a popular hub for luxury rehabilitation resorts, among them The Cabin, which offers specially tailored treatment programmes for general addiction, youngsters, LGBT and women.
Opened in 2010, this resort has expanded from nine to 120 rooms, complete with swimming pools, well-equipped fitness centres and executive lounges, plus a hospital.
“Thailand is a popular holiday destination with beautiful scenery and excellent hospitality, making it perfect for rehabilitation. The key idea is that we need to move addicts from their familiar surroundings to reduce the impulse,” says Andy Leach, clinical leader and counsellor of The Cabin.
“The main core of treatment is to work with a family to continue such treatment when clients return their home. We educate their families about addiction. This is a disease, generally caused by a state of low dopamine in the midbrain, which results in the positive feeling of reward [happiness] being hijacked.”
Ranging from $14,900 to $15,900, the intensive, all-inclusive treatment packages take at least 28 days and includes general health checks, daily talk therapy both one on one and group, personal fitness training, massage treatments, art therapy, excursions, relapse prevention plan and online aftercare coaching.
“We have already welcomed some 2,000 customers, 70 per cent male and 30 per cent female, aged from 16 to 60. They mostly came from Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, the UK, Netherlands, Denmark and United Arab Emirates as well as from the expatriate community in Thailand. The top three addictions are methamphetamine, alcohol and marijuana,” says Reeya Chaicharas, PR manager of The Cabin Addiction Services Group.
Another addiction the resort has been increasingly treating in recent years is online gaming and in 2017, the resort designed the activity-based Edge programme for young people that includes muay thai and triathlon training to improve meditative skills and muscle tone.
Rehab and health centres have also sprung up in Chon Buri, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chiang Rai and Chantaburi and all appear to be attracting a steady stream of patients.
TAT research has also shown that Chinese couples are actively seeking out the best IVF treatment programmes since China launched the second child policy. In Bangkok, Samitivej Hospital Sukhumvit is drawing European expats both resident in Thailand and living in Myanmar and Laos with its advanced technology and experienced experts in obstetrics and gynaecology.
“My patients are mostly specialised in engineering and computers and take advantage their company’s welfare schemes. We see a lot of males aged 50 to 60, now in a second marriage, and with a low sperm count associated with their age, while the females aged 38 and up have a low ovarian reserve. Around 70 to 80 per cent of our patients choose to get IVF treatments though the success depends on age and female fertility,” says Dr Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Boonsaeng Wutthiphan.
“The couple wants a specialist who understands their problem. Here at the centre we have combined innovations and medical technologies from several countries to provide effective treatment programmes.”
Thailand’s advanced anti-ageing and wellness treatment programmes have become popular with tourists from China, the UK, UAE, Singapore and India.
Samitivej Hospital’s Life Centre offers a wide selection of specially designed rejuvenation and ageing treatments to help balance body and soul.
“The number of the well-heeled Chinese patients aged 50 to 60 has increased over the last year. They mostly have high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease and want to improve their health. China is known the world over for its traditional medicine but people today are more inclined to seek out modern technology,” says Dr Panuwat Putthacharoen, a special in anti-ageing and regenerative medicine at Samitivej Hospital Sukhumvit.
“The programme starts with a hormone test, nutritional examination and blood analysis. We design treatment programmes to restore balance, based on the individual’s health.
Here too, much of the treatment is natural, with the hospital combining several herbs, vitamins and fruit extracts as well as research from around the world to help their patients. For example, South African berries are used to slow down cellular degeneration while imported ginseng from the US, Africa and Asia is a main ingredient in improving hormonal balance, and guarana from South Africa enhances metabolism.
“Younger patients both in Thailand and from Myanmar and Vietnam are learning to prepare themselves for getting older. They want to decrease their disease risk, stay fit all the time and maintain their health,” Dr Panuwat says.
“We have a detox treatment course lasting three to seven days, which eliminates toxins and is perfect for those facing PM2.5 pollution and those living in industrial areas.”
And today it seems that women now wish to be beautiful from the inside out rather than going under the knife. Last year, Panpuri Wellness launched its organic spa and says that 75 per cent of its customers come from China, Japan and South Korea. Focusing on insomnia, stress, fatigue and pollution, the centre offers an organic massage treatment, onsen bath, exercise classes and healthy food.
“There is a noticeable trend in beauty products made from natural ingredients. This industry is valued at $11 billion and expected to double in 2024 with a growth rate of eight per cent per year, according to research conducted by Euromonitor and the Department of Tourism,” says Vorravit Siripark, chief executive officer of Panpuri.
“Our treatments, which are designed with a preventive approach, help to relieve the stress of urban living and balance body and mind,” says Vorravit Siripark, chief executive officer of Panpuri.
“We collaborated with Naturopathic Physician, Dr Aaron J Bullington to create the Wellness Signature Massage that combines Eastern and Western style massage techniques to relieve fatigue.”