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Medical tourism booms in India, China

October 5, 2011

Medical tourism is big business now, not only are Asian countries like India, Korea and Thailand seeing a surge of patients, growing affluence in China is rearing the higher middle income Chinese to treat themselves to a double eye lid surgery to make their eyes look bigger, or a nose job to make their features sharper.

CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in a study released last month estimated that China would account for 60 percent of the rise in high net-worth individuals’ wealth in Asia over the next five years. Chinese patients arrive in South Korea with photographs of Korean celebrities they want to look like, says Lee Soo-jung of the Lamar Plastic Surgery Clinic in Seoul. Han Dong-woo of the Korea Health Industry Development Institute says the number of tourists coming to South Korea ballooned last year to nearly 82,000, generating about $700 million in revenues. Three years earlier, fewer than 8,000 medical tourists travelled to South Korea. Han projects some 200,000 will come next year. By 2020, the South Korean government envisages a million medical tourists a year.

As the recession takes root in the west, each country in the east from India to Korea has started specializing and marketing themselves in some kind of medical tourism. For example, Thailand and India, Asia’s leading destinations, specialize in orthopedic and cardiac surgery. The Singapore health care industry  positions itself as a “premium” center specializing in cancer treatments, cardiology and other specialized care. Most of Malaysia’s sultans, as well as other high profile political figures and celebrities from Asia and the Middle East travel to Singapore for treatments.

Cost is the major factor for the spurt in Asian medical tourism, the added side effects being a holiday, English speaking doctors and generous post treatment care. Hospitals in India, Thailand and the Philippines offer surgeries for almost 40-50 percent less than what most European or American hospitals charge.

Accordingly, the projections for medical tourism are also large. By next year, Singapore aims to treat a million foreign patients a year, generating about US$3 billion for the economy, the Singapore Straits Times has reported. Neighboring Malaysia, attracted nearly 400,000 medical tourists last year, and aims to increase that number to 1.9 million by 2020, mainly by way of undercutting Singapore. The Philippines meanwhile is projecting the number of medical tourists to hit one million by 2015, generating at least US$1 billion in revenue.

While the rise of medical tourism cannot be abated, there are many that feel it is a burden on the domestic medical system, with doctors opting for lucrative private jobs, locals being jostled for beds and treatments, medical errors, lax follow-up care, and insurance, regulatory and ethical issues, it needs to be seen how beneficial is medial tourism when the domestic health care system is already creaking apart?

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