Flying patients - Issue 49 - Magazine | Monocle

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Much like data processing and higher education, the market for healthcare has gone global. From Bangkok to Bangalore, Monterrey to Malaysia, peripatetic consumers have made medical tourism a €29bn international industry, growing by nearly 30 per cent each year. Fuelled by rapidly expanding – and ageing – middle classes, some 6.5 million people in both the developed and developing worlds are now shopping for medical services much as they would any premium product: with a focus on cost, quality and convenience.

“More than 3.2 billion people will enter the middle classes over the next 20 to 30 years,” says Josef Woodman, CEO and founder of medical tourism media firm Patients Beyond Borders. “Newly ­affluent populations aren’t just seeking western-style products such as TVs and iPods; they want western-style medicine as well.”

To meet this demand, international accreditation agencies such as the US-based Joint Commission International (JCI) are developing guidelines to ensure worldwide quality of care. Over 400 hospitals now meet JCI standards, with countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia leading the sector. Armed with these seals of approval – and potential savings of up to 80 per cent – medical tourism facilities market themselves much as the luxury hotels they often resemble. And thanks to new social media sites such as ZocDoc – which raised $25m (€18m) from Goldman Sachs in September – patients are now empowered to source healthcare that precisely suits their needs, whether across the street or across the globe.

With Americans increasingly under-insured and Canadians and Europeans waiting ever-longer for essential procedures, “western” concepts of healthcare are clearly ready for a rethink. And medical tourism could likely fill this gap. “The ‘general hospital’ model is dying; replaced by incredible growth in specialised treatments” in Asia and Latin America, says Woodman. “This promotes greater efficiencies and economies of scale,” he adds, resulting in lower costs and more personalised services.

01 - A roaring success

South Africa

Everyone loves coming back from a holiday to compliments that they look “years younger”, but this is being taken to the next level in South Africa. According to the Medical Tourism Association of South Africa, as many as 135,000 people are indulging in “facelift safaris’’ every year.

Many patients turn to an agency to plan their visit. The longest-running agency, Surgeon & Safari, based in Johannesburg, offers a range of packages and about €9,200 will buy a facelift, eyelid surgery, meals, transfers, two days spotting wildlife and accommodation in a four-star guesthouse.

“The medical tourism market has exploded,” says Surgeon & Safari founder Lorraine Melvill. “My aim is to take the worry out of the experience so all my customers need to deal with is their personal anxiety.’’

02 - Asia’s leading edge


Singapore continues to top Asia’s medical tourism league, though regional competitors such as Malaysia and Thailand are snapping at the city-state’s heels. With 30 first-class medical institutions, including Raffles Medical Group, and a healthcare system that keeps on winning accolades (The World Health Organisation ranked it the world’s sixth best in 2000), Singapore is consolidating its place as the Asian hotspot for hi-tech procedures. It helps that the pricetag is considerably cheaper than in the US.

The government’s tourism board is co-sponsoring SingaporeMedicine, which promotes and markets the country as a premium medical destination around the world. And thankfully for Singaporeans medical visitor numbers continue to rise – with just under five million people, those hi-tech doctors wouldn’t have enough people to take care of unless they kept on coming from abroad.

03 - Riding a baby boom


Being one of the first countries in the world to successfully carry out in vitro fertilisation (IVF), Israel currently has the highest per capita number of users of the procedure (10 times more than in the UK). Since IVF costs are fully subsidised up to the birth of two children for all Israeli women, Israeli physicians have vast experience. It’s no wonder Israel has become the world’s capital of IVF. A main attraction for western patients is the low price – about €3,000 per treatment, compared with about €11,000 in the US.

“It’s a relatively simple procedure with no hospitalisation involved,” says Danny Engel, VP for marketing at Assuta Medical Center in Tel Aviv, “and the women are, of course, not sick – which means that IVF patients have time to visit the country, shop and act as ‘real’ tourists for most of their time here.”

04 - Pearly queen of Europe


More than 200 dentists work in the small town of Mosonmagyaróvár, where dental treatment can cost a tenth of that in western Europe. Thousands of foreigners arrive each year in this idyllic town for everything from implants to whitening treatments or more complicated surgery.

The clinics usually work together with hotels that recommend excursions for guests and offer the “dental taxis” that pick them up from the nearby airports of Vienna and Brastilava. And there are collaborations and initiatives across the community to secure the town’s position as one of the leading dentistry centres in Europe, including a scheme between hotels and clinics where patients get special rates depending on how expensive and lengthy their procedures, giving guests something to smile about.

05 - Hi-tech healing

South Korea

It’s not only the lure of heartthrob actors and K-pop stars filling planes bound for South Korea: medical tourism is a growing draw. Tapping into its modern healthcare system, South Korea is on a bold mission to reinvent itself as northeast Asia’s leading medical tourism hub, with its state-of-the-art hospitals, cutting-edge technology and competitive pricing.

Last year, there were nearly 82,000 medical tourists, a figure significantly higher than the 8,000 three years earlier, while 110,000 are expected this year and 300,000 by 2015, according to the Korean Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI). Cancer is one increasingly renowned area of speciality, with the five-year survival rate for stomach cancer at 47.3 per cent compared with 23.2 per cent in the United States.

The nation is also home to 26 da Vinci robotic surgery systems in 11 hospitals as well as Asia’s only proton beam therapy programme for treating cancer.

“The government and private enterprise see healthcare as a way to showcase South Korea’s capabilities to the world,” says Irving Stackpole, a medical tourism consultant for KHIDI, “and they have merged leading-edge technology with more traditional treatments such as aromatherapy, acupuncture and acupressure in some very impressive ways.”

And it’s set to grow further: Jeju, the volcanic southern island famous for honeymooners, is the setting for the ambitious Jeju Healthcare Town project. A major joint government and private sector development to be completed in 2015, it will be home to a relaxation park and a hi-tech medical complex for specialised treatment for diseases such as cancer and a cutting-edge scientific R&D unit, offering therapies that cover anything from acupuncture to oncology.

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