Seeing the doctor, overseas: Medical tourism booms in Asia

Seeing the doctor, overseas: Medical tourism booms in Asia

KUALA LUMPUR - The lines snaking into Bangladesh's overwhelmed hospitals are often so long, says Nusrat Hussein Kiwan, that they extend into the street outside - too many patients seeking too few quality doctors.

So, through a Google search, the wife of a Bangladeshi construction executive chose a Malaysian hospital for her heart bypass surgery.

"It's peaceful here, and my doctors are good," Kiwan, 65, said during a post-op check-up at a Kuala Lumpur private hospital, looking full of life in an orange headscarf and sparkling gold bracelets.

"I didn't expect to be as good as before. But I'm better."

Kiwan spent US$20,000 (S$26,317) on the procedure earlier this year, joining a booming global medical tourism market that is seeing particularly rapid growth in Southeast Asia.

US-based industry resource Patients Beyond Borders estimates the world market is expanding by 25 per cent per year - it reached $55 billion with 11 million medical tourists in 2013.

International medical tourism began to gain ground in the 1980s as Latin American countries such as Costa Rica and Brazil offered relatively cheap dental, cosmetic and other procedures to US and European patients driven south by high costs.

But the onetime niche market has developed into a multi-billion-dollar industry as developing-world health systems improve, global aviation links spread, and the Internet broadens patients' horizons.

Procedures vary widely from fertility treatments in Barbados, to cosmetic surgery in Brazil, heart and eye operations in Malaysia, and gender-reassignment in Thailand.

'Perfect storm'

The sector benefits from a "perfect storm of an ageing global population, rising affluence and greater choice in quality hospitals," said Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders.

"This is particularly true in Asia, where disparities in quality of care are driving millions of patients to countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan -- and even the US and UK - in search of medical treatment not yet available in their homelands."

"The near-term growth potential is significant," he said.

Increasingly, major Asian players like India, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are aggressively promoting treatments at up to 80 per cent savings compared to developed nations, with some companies arranging package trips that combine a nose job with a little beach time.

Southeast Asia, in particular, is considered a medical-tourism "sweet spot," with decades of solid economic growth creating high-quality medical systems that remain competitively priced.

Patients come from both rich and poor nations, the former driven by high costs at home, and the latter seeking better-quality care.

Malaysia's market has nearly doubled since 2010, reaching 770,000 patients and US$200 million in revenue last year, according to government figures.

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