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Sand, Sun, and Surgery

Thailand welcomes a sea of medical tourists

The perfect holiday typically does not include a trip to the hospital, but a growing number of vacationers are combining their travels with treatments, seeking everything from cardiac to cosmetic surgeries.

Nearly 8 million patients cross international borders for medical procedures each year, and Thailand claims the largest market share. The land of smiles, known for its detailed craftsmanship, attentive hospitality, healthy cuisine and beautiful beaches, is an attractive place to vacation. Adding first-class hospitals, advanced medical technology, topnotch physicians, and significantly lower treatment costs to the offerings, makes Thailand the most popular medical tourism destination in the world. 

Traveling for medical care is nothing new, but historically, people from developing nations were more likely to travel to wealthier countries to obtain care. That model has flipped. Today, with the ease of travel, mounting healthcare costs, long waits, and an aging population, more patients from the United States and other western countries are prompting a global tsunami of medical tourism to the developing world. Since cosmetic plastic surgery procedures are not covered by insurance, they make up a majority of the medical tourism market.

Cosmetic surgeries are not the only procedures sought overseas. Thailand excels in a wide range of specialties, thanks in part to its renowned Bumrungrad International Hospital, the largest private hospital in Asia, which serves 400,000 foreign patients a year. Thailand offers over 34 distinct specialties including joint and hip replacement, coronary artery bypass grafts, neurosurgery, spinal fusions, oncology, dermatology, dental, weight loss, and anti-aging.

With the increasing demand in these niche specialties, Thailand has invested heavily in their healthcare infrastructures to deliver accredited medical care. They employ skilled medical specialists with 500 American Board Certified Doctors practicing in the country. In addition, Thailand boasts the distinction of being the first Asian country to achieve the prestigious Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation, which it received in 2002. Today, over 30 hospitals in Thailand are JCI-accredited.
“The care in Thailand is wonderful with a nurse-to-patient ratio far better than the U.S. The hospitals in Bangkok meet or exceed U.S. standards. They have nicer hospital suites and top da Vinci® Surgical Systems,” says Dr. Ron Johnson, Chief Medical Officer of Satori World Medical, a U.S. based concierge company that coordinates medical tourism to Bangkok and several countries around the world. “All of the patients we have sent to these hospitals have given us excellent feedback on their experience and care at the facilities. All said they would return.”

One of the main drivers of popularity in medical tourism is the cost. As an example, the cost of a heart valve or hip replacement is about $15,000 versus the $150,000 in the United States. In most cases, procedures are one-tenth the cost abroad, even after adding the travel and related expenses.

Dr. Johnson notes that, “even for patients who have medical insurance in the U.S., premiums for expensive, high-tech procedures, can exceed the cost of paying cash for the same operation in Thailand.”

According to myMEDHoliday.com, which showcases Thailand’s medical tourism statistics, international visitors to Thailand reached an all-time high in 2012, with over 2.5 million medical tourists. Further, Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health and the Kasikom Research Center, estimated earnings of 130 billion Thai Baht (4.1 billion USD) were generated in 2013 from medical tourism, which is poised for a 16% growth per year.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) runs the official website for Medical Tourism and provides healthcare information for international patients travelling to Thailand. Packages frequently include deals on travel for the patient and a companion, medical facilities and services offering transportation including limousine service, in suite attendants, and 30-day visas, all of which maximize convenience and comfort.

While patients are drawn to the lower costs and luxuries, they must be vigilant about quality. Western accreditation is a vital component for confidence in undergoing medical treatments abroad, cautions the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). Although destination countries court patients by promoting the quality and safety of their procedures and facilities, it is important to research these claims for physical safety as well as legal protection. One reason the costs can remain low is that these countries do not have a robust tort system or medical mal practice laws, for better or worse.

Lisa Jenks, M.D., of Genesis Medspa in Colorado Springs advises, “Before going overseas for medical procedures, know that the main surgeon may be board certified, but the anesthesiologists, nurses and support staff may not be up to U.S. standards. Further, the follow up is critical,” she says. “It is difficult for another physician to step in after a surgery or treatment has been done. The transfer of patient medical records to and from facilities outside the U.S. should be consistent with HIPAA guidelines.”
To help ensure optimal results and to limit risks and complications, the ASPS offer tips to anyone considering cosmetic surgery abroad: 1) Do Your Homework: Research the procedure, the benefits, and the risks. Identify expectations and understand side effects and recovery time. 2) Be Informed: Talk to patients who have had your procedure so you know what to expect. 3) Require a Medical Evaluation: Consult with your surgeon for an evaluation and discuss your full medical history to determine the most appropriate treatment.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has likewise drawn up guidelines on medical tourism for patients, employers, insurers, and medical travel coordinators, calling for better public awareness about the need to coordinate care before and after operations.

Although enticing, vacation activities should be avoided post-surgery in order to heal properly, according to the guidelines. This includes sunbathing, drinking alcohol, swimming, water skiing, exercising or taking extensive tours. These stipulations may lessen the allure of a medical vacation for some. But for many, escaping the day-today mayhem and doing nothing but enjoying a peaceful new setting is the perfect cure.

Ultimately, seeking medical care outside of the U.S. is a personal choice. While there are many outstanding medical facilities in beautiful countries like Thailand, it is important to research appropriate accreditation before going, and to consider potential risks of combining surgical procedures with long flights and vacation activities. Many find the idea of recuperating in an exotic location appealing, while others feel more secure staying local, close to friends, with the healing comforts of home.