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Sat 12 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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Leisurely healing

Can Arab states take the low cost healthcare tourism model practised in Thailand & give it the luxury treatment?

Leisurely healing
Leisurely healing
Dr Chatree Duangnet is the CEO of the Royal Bangkok Hospital.


Can Arab countries take the low cost healthcare tourism model practised at the Royal Bangkok Hospital and give it the luxury treatment? There’s certainly a potential market for it.

There’s something strange about visiting the Royal Bangkok Hospital in the capital of Thailand. Basically, it doesn’t feel like a hospital, or even smell like one. More like a trip to the Four Seasons Hotel.

“That’s part of the plan,” says the hospital’s CEO Dr Chatree Duangnet.

His “plan” — to attract patients from across the world, enticing them with the ambience of a hotel but the care of a top class hospital, certainly seems to be paying off. A staggering 14% of its daily outpatients — well over 300 a day — are from the Arab world, mostly the UAE. They have come here for a holiday combined with either medical treatment or just an annual check up.

Royal Bangkok Hospital is living proof that medical tourism is big and booming. “We are a private hospital and the way forward for private hospitals is to change the way they operate. It is not enough to just be functional and have the best medical facilities. You have to attract people with the kind of accommodation and facilities that you would expect at a five-star hotel,” says Dr Duangnet.

With a market capitalisation of over $1bn, the strategy is paying off. Holding company the Bangkok Dusit has over 10,000 staff and 17 hospitals in Thailand. Two more have opened in Cambodia and the next stop will be Abu Dhabi, as the company looks to capitalise in the number of Arabs seeking Asian-style healthcare.

“We have Arabic speakers and we train our staff to respect Arab cultures. With over 300 a day coming here, it is has become a big part of our business and now we are confident we can do the same in Abu Dhabi, because we have a strong client base. It isn’t about just coming here when you have a problem, but coming on a regular basis for a complete medical check up,” he says.

Thailand’s medical system was revolutionised under former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. One of his key policies was the “30 baht treat all” scheme launched when he came to power in 2001.

The plan meant universal coverage for every single person in Thailand. Every time they visited a doctor, they would pay THB30 ($1). One visit, THB30. Two visits, THB60. This price was regardless of the medical problem they had — be it a slight cold or major heart surgery that was needed, the price would always be the same.

This also reduced the expense on healthcare because people were healthier and so as a result were also more fit for work.

Under Thailand’s pre-Shinawatra system, 76% of the population had access to healthcare. A year after he came to power, the figure stood at 96%.

“It resulted in everyone being far more health conscious, but with the loss of their insurance payments many hospitals looked for alternative sources of income. One of the results was a boom in medical tourism, with Thailand earning over $1bn from foreign patients in 2005,” says Dr Duangnet.

Today, the country has well over a million medical tourists a year, and the industry is booming not just here but globally.


The primary attraction for medical tourists is financial savings (if they are coming from the West) and quality of care (especially if they herald from developing countries). For example, a heart bypass that costs $130,000 in the US costs only $10,000 in India. Similar cost structures exist in Thailand and Singapore as well, two other well-known providers in the region. In the UAE, Dubai has partnered with Harvard Medical International (HMI) to provide a renowned and trusted name as its strategic collaborator.

Ironically, the US now suffers from out-bound medical tourism because of the bloated, inefficient and expensive healthcare system in the country that makes treatment unfeasible even for the insured. Then there are the 50 million uninsured Americans, and even those who have free healthcare like US army veterans suffer long waiting times for basic procedures.

It is estimated that 600,000 Americans will travel abroad for medical treatment, looking for cheaper, better medical care. Jordan is ranked No.1 in medical tourism in the Middle East by the World Bank, which regularly appeals directly to the cash strapped and frustrated US population. Recently, the head of Jordan’s Private Hospitals Association, Dr Fawzi Al Hammouri, advertised treatment packages as “less than 25 percent of what you have to pay in the US”.

“We are competing with other hospitals for the same people, and one of our key focuses has been on efficiency — basically being able to get in and out of here in a very short space of time,” says Dr Duangnet.

One of the hospitals biggest growth areas is in the medical check up service. All employers in Thailand must send their staff at least once a year for a thorough check up, and the same service is now attracting thousands for foreigners. In just two hours, visitors get an intensive medical check up including cancer screening, with the report delivered to them less than two hours later.

“This is something that we find many medical tourists, especially from the Arab world, really like. They can fly into Bangkok, stay for a day and have everything done including their medical report — and then head to one of the resorts in the country for the rest of their holiday,” he adds.

For Dr Duangnet, the future is about taking the same concept outside Thailand. Whilst the Abu Dhabi plans are under wraps, it is understood the hospital is considering combining with a major tourist operator such as the Four Seasons for other overseas projects, and additional new hospitals in Thailand.

“It is a question of how far you go with this and the answer is probably a lot further than what you see here today,” says Dr Duangnet.

One plan involves actually building an entire hotel, part of which is devoted to a state of the art hospital.

“It would mean that for example, if you live in America, you can actually book a proper holiday in an overseas resort for a week or two, and I mean proper resort with all kinds of beach and leisure facilities. Somewhere inside that hotel will be a hospital, where maybe one person in that family is going for surgery. The whole family can be together and make a holiday out of the whole experience. It would certainly be a better way to recover than being in a traditional hospital,” he says.

It is believed that the Abu Dhabi Health Authority is studying such plans, which have also been submitted to other Arab nations.

As Dr Duangnet explains: “I have worked as a doctor for 21 years myself so I know the medical profession very well. And I know that certainly in Europe and Australia, hospitals are just functional. They are always full, and they don’t need to do anything to attract customers. The private sector is different, you need to have a clear marketing plan and strategy. This is a business and we have to compete for market share.”

So far, he is making a pretty good job of it.

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