Asia leads industry worth $74 billion

Asia leads industry worth $74 billion
Bangkok's Yanhee Hospital offers plastic surgery and sex change operations. To ensure things go smoothly for medical tourists, it has interpreters for more than 10 languages.

TOKYO/BANGKOK - Medical care used to be a primarily local affair. Today, it is an increasingly globalised business. Patients are traveling thousands of kilometers to get better or more affordable services than they can find in their own communities.

To save on coverage, employers are encouraging workers to go abroad for treatment. The worldwide medical tourism market is estimated to be worth US$55 billion (S$74.23 billion), and it is projected to continue growing by 20 per cent a year.

The annual tally of medical tourists now exceeds 11 million people, according to information provider Patients Beyond Borders. Most of these hospital hoppers head to Asian countries, which have been courting them for years. The rise of budget airlines has fueled the trend.

Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, India and South Korea have actively promoted their services to international patients since the 1990s. Seeing medical tourism as an effective way to bring in foreign funds since the Asian currency crisis of 1997, they have loosened regulations, and invested both money and human resources.

A survey conducted by Nikko Asset Management showed that Thailand and Singapore were the world's top two medical destinations in 2012.

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