Singapore, Malaysia tough rivals to Thailand's quest to be medical hub

THAILAND - Thailand should prove itself more if it wants to become a regional hub for medical tourism in the long term, competing with arch-rivals Singapore and Malaysia. One major barrier to this quest is politics. If political demonstrations become chaotic to the point of closing airports, this will undermine patients' confidence, and they might decide to go elsewhere, said Pongsakorn Chindawatana, a professional doctor and also senior director of communication at Bangkok Dusit Medical Services.

So far, there have been no cancellations of trips to the company's hospitals. The political scenario at present is still considered acceptable. However, the company will have to keep monitoring the situation closely over the next few months, he said.

Speaking after a seminar on "Business Power for the Future of Thai Tourism" held by the Department of Tourism, he said Thailand was second to no other country in the region for the quality of its medical services. The country's medical advancement is also internationally recognised for its high standards. It is essential for the government and private sectors to make a joint effort to promote this service on the global stage.

It is already true Thailand is a hub, but only geographically. So far, there is no clear evidence to show that any country in the region, whether Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand, will succeed in the goal of becoming such a hub permanently. All three nations are still scrambling to adopt marketing strategies to publicise their services and claim status as the regional medical-service destination.

Singapore has a competitive edge as a Chinese-speaking nation, which makes it attractive to the large number of affluent mainland Chinese. Also, the island nation has earned a reputation for its medical services founded by Britain during its colonial period, boosting patients' confidence. Most important, it has marketed these services aggressively.

Also, Singapore is a rich country. Pongsakorn said it was most likely that the country would expand its service regionally, especially into Thailand, by establishing hospital networks or other forms of medical services, after the opening of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.

Meanwhile Malaysia, as a Muslim nation, has kept in touch with Arab patients. These two examples, he said, show that cost may not be a key factor for some foreign tourist groups when they decide where to go. They will choose to go to the country where they feel most comfortable, especially in terms of culture and language. But Thailand has its own attractions. The Kingdom is rich in natural tourism resources, from beach to mountainous destinations, where patients can recuperate after their treatments. Friendly service and good hospitality are also magnets.

Beyond Bangkok, provincial choices include Chiang Mai and Phuket.

In terms of cost, Thailand is also 10-15 per cent cheaper than those other two nations. More important, 35 private hospitals here have been certified by The Joint Commission, a US-based accreditation organisation for healthcare services. This will help strengthen confidence among patients, especially from the United States and Europe.

Pongsakorn said Thailand should keep its focus on the ASEAN market, which shows big potential, especially after the AEC opening. Because of their less advanced medical development, the number of people from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia coming to Thailand for treatment is on the rise."We have no need to adjust ourselves much to serve people from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia because they share similarities with Thai culture," he said.