MAJOR THAI hospitals are expanding their presence throughout Southeast Asia.
The region was first considered as a hub for medical tourism about a decade ago. Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia are now major players in the industry.
Leading hospitals in the three countries are offering quality services at lower charges than developed countries.
The medical industry in Malaysia has grown steadily since 2010.
Malaysia set up a special organisation in 2009 to promote and develop the medical industry.
Thailand, however, is gaining a much bigger market share, with more than 2 million medical tourists since 2012. Singapore is also enjoying the growth of this niche segment.
Healthcare demand in Southeast Asia is increasing gradually in parallel with the population.
"In terms of the quality of doctors and medical development, Thailand is ranked just behind Japan.
Our prolonged and biggest problem is the lack of new research and development," said Pongpat Patanavanich, president of the Private Hospital Association.
The government should draft a master plan and a clear policy to drive the industry forward and help hospitals expand into the region, which will become a huge single market under the ASEAN Economic Community, he said.
The spurt of the industry throughout the region will lead to greater demand for skilled labour. Thailand produces two doctors and 12 nurses per 100,000 people each year - one-third or one-fourth Singapore's rate. The Philippines produces six times as many nurses.
Thailand leads region
The United Nations has warned that Southeast Asia, with a total population of 650 million, will need more medical services, doctors and nurses.
Thailand has seen more than 2 million foreign patients come for medical treatment at 37 hospitals since 2012. This is much higher than Singapore's 850,000, Malaysia's 700,000 and the Philippines' 81,000.
Treatment in Thailand costs half the rate in Singapore, but is more expensive than in Malaysia, the Philippines and India.
Thailand's healthcare spending is estimated to rise by 8 per cent a year through 2018.
The Public Health Ministry says that from 2001-07, the number of international patients grew by 21 per cent per year.
"The medical industry still needs more biotechnology research, particularly in the areas of medicine, food supplements, cosmetics, medical equipment and ingredients," Pongpat said.
Thailand has 32 private hospitals that are certified by the Joint Commission International.
Last year, public and private hospitals generated revenue of Bt600 billion (S$23 billion) to Bt700 billion, up from Bt500 billion three years before that.
For private hospitals alone, foreigners have contributed annual revenue of Bt100 billion, increasing from Bt70 billion three years before that.
Top players move into ASEAN
Bangkok Hospital Group, Thailand's largest private hospital operator, continues to spread its wings through the region with the target of 50 hospitals, up from the existing 42.
The group is also shifting to the non-hospital segment to cater to the wider market from the AEC.
The group claims to be the largest operator in terms of patient service revenue and market capitalisation with Bt94.0 billion in assets.
The group's portfolio consists of Samitivej Hospital, Phyathai Hospitals, Paolo Hospitals and BNH Hospital.
The group is operating two hospitals in Cambodia. It also has offices in emerging countries in Southeast Asia - Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia - as well as in the Middle East. In Bangkok, the flagship hospital focuses on various high-growth markets in Thailand and overseas.
Bumrungrad International, another top-brand medical institution, is moving into Myanmar by establishing a clinic and diagnostic centre in Yangon.
The clinic is expected to be launched by midyear.
The joint venture with Yangon Medical Services has received approval from the Myanmar Investment Commission.
The clinic, which will be operated by Bumrungrad staff, will provide primary care and diagnostic services for patients residing in Myanmar, reducing their need to travel abroad.
Bumrungrad treats more than a million patients a year, including more than 520,000 patients from 190 countries, and Myanmar is the single largest international market.
Samitivej Hospital Group plans to expand throughout the region and other markets.
It is expanding strategic alliances in ASEAN, Japan and the Middle East, and conducting continuous staff training to enhance service levels.
It constantly increases its potential and ability to take care of paediatric patients.
It has already expanded to neighbouring countries and large cities in Asia, the ASEAN region and China, including Beijing and Shanghai. It also provides medical escort services to transport patients to advanced countries such as the United States and Australia.