MEDICAL

There are a handful of Asian countries whose citizens particularly value the potential for improving their looks and self-esteem by going under the knife. There are also some other places that have simply taken the opportunity to cash in on the explosive growth of international patients seeking elective procedures overseas. Whatever the case may be, four leading medical-travel destinations have thriving cosmetic/plastic surgery networks and have become hotspots for that kind of treatment.

DON’T CALL ME A NICHE! – MEDICAL VISIT GOES MAINSTREAM

I laugh at the sight of scenes of flight in old movies, or in newer shows set in the past that depict air travel as it once was, with passengers dressed up in their Sunday best, prim and proper, as if seated in pews not coach.  The reality is that flying used to be for higher class people and was considered an infrequent and fairly exclusive luxury.  Nowadays, everyone flies, at any time necessary.  It’s like buying a bus ticket for the most part.

Since I’m not an economist, I can’t tell you precisely what sort of evolution transpired to enable this shift from it being a buttoned-up wealthy man’s concern to the commonplace jeans-and-t-shirts affair that flying is today.  I have, however, noticed a similar change in another corner of the travel business.  In the medical tourism world, heading overseas for healthcare is becoming less of a subset of the travel industry and more of a mainstream endeavor.  It is growing out of its niche status.

This is particularly true for the Asian market where the popularity of Thailand medical tourism and other countries in the region like Singapore, India, and upstart Malaysia is at all-time highs.  In the beginning, flying overseas for things like dental care, plastic surgery, and even heart surgery treatment was considered a bit of a novelty.  An extravagance that, despite a net savings for patients, was primarily sought by wealthier folks with shrewd travel agents.  It was something akin to the early days of commercial flight.

Slowly but surely, however, vast numbers of us “regular folk” have begun to understand that heading to Asia for healthcare means high quality and low cost.  Now, medical tourism is one of the worst-kept secrets in travel: there are whole agencies devoted to it; doctors, hospitals, and clinics advertise special medical travel packages and promotions; there are countless web sites concentrating on providing information to medical tourists aboutaffordable health care destinations, like myMEDholiday.com, one of the best in the game…and it’s all starting to resemble the traditional vacation business.

In an article on TTGasia.com – a leading travel trade resource for the Asia-Pacific region – Ralf Krewer, international marketing director of Bangkok Hospital, explains that the line between medical tourists and leisure travelers is fading.  “Patients are behaving like consumers, seeking higher service levels and evaluating the total package and not just medical expertise,” he said.  And, as a result, he believes there are opportunities to identify and target different types of patients based on their needs like conventional travel companies have been doing for years for honeymooners, extreme sport lovers, beachgoers, family vacationers, etc.

Kenneth Mays of famed Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok is another marketing director with his ear to the ground.  He cautions that medical tourism hasn’t become exactly like leisure travel though, reminding us that “healthcare is the main reason for medical tourism trips,” and that while a factor, “cost saving is not the most important driver” of patients heading to exotic locales.  His point seems to be, similar to Mr. Krewer’s, that travel & tour operators have an opportunity to really cash in on the burgeoning medical traveler business by designing packages for them, just as long as they’re not solely based on cost and not too skewed towards the holiday side of things.

And while medical travelers from Western countries like the US, UK, and Australia will continue to be a large and important part of the industry in Asia, the most significant growth, most experts believe, will continue to come from neighboring and nearby countries like Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia whose people are seekinghigh quality medical treatments that they cannot get in their homelands.  Julie Munro of InterMed Global, a consultancy firm for the medical tourism industry, believes that the already huge Asian middle class of roughly 500 million people is poised to increase to 1.75 billion by 2020, and indicates that healthcare costs are predicted to jump 15% by that time as well.

These seem like factors that will continue to drive medical tourism further into the mainstream, usually a good thing for consumers.

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