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Vol 20, No. 10, October 2016   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
Top Medical Tourism Hotspots

You may spot a foreigner in Orchard Singapore, and pass him off as a tourist here for holidaymaking. But, no, he is in fact a medical tourist. Indian national Timir Patel, 48, is one such example. He travelled specially from Mumbai to have kidney transplant surgery at Mount Elizabeth Hospital [1].

Singapore, together with India and Thailand are the top 3 Asian countries that medical tourists flock to. These destinations account for more than 93% of the Asian medical tourism share in 2012, according to business consultancy RNCOS [2]. So why this hubbub of activity in these countries?

The main pull is the relatively low cost paid, which earns medical tourists a high quality of healthcare infrastructure and services, coupled with access to a pool of highly skilled surgeons. This attractive deal magnetises people in countries with unfavourable or expensive healthcare options to travel to seek treatment.

The low healthcare costs is especially so for Thailand and India. CNN's documentary "Inside Man" followed Morgan Spurlock to Bangkok's Bumrungrad International Hospital, a Joint Commission International (JCI) accredited hospital. JCI is considered the gold standard in global healthcare. [4] Spurlock received a total of 4 examinations by doctors - colonoscopy, MRI, blood panels and consultation for a sore shoulder, all for SG$6,000 (including airfare and hotel stay). This is versus what he would have had to pay in USA of about SG$19,000. The high quality of healthcare provided by trained professionals are displayed as well. Bumrungrad caters to 520,000 international patients yearly from over 190 countries. Their doctors are trained abroad and over 300 are American Board Certified. With a pharmacy and outpatient clinic on every level of Bumrungrad Hospital, and a blood lab within the hospital grounds as well, efficiency is at its best. An American patient, William Brockwell commented, "The most I've ever sat waiting here has been 15 minutes. In the U.S., I've sat up to two hours, waiting to get waited on." [3]

India has replicated the Thai model, with world class medical facilities and English speaking doctor experts, all for the fraction of the costs in other countries. Apollo Hospital in Chennai, also JCI accredited, has a special wall decorated with international clocks, and translators present, to cater to about 70,000 medical tourists yearly. [5] India makes foreign arrivals welcome by having special lanes for those seeking medical treatment in her airports, and providing medical visas. (2) Though some may be put off by the obvious poverty on the streets outside of major cities, many especially from the nearby Middle East and Africa come to seek treatment in India's top hospitals. One must note however, the world of a disparity between India's corporate or private hospitals versus her public healthcare services and health insurance coverage. Public hospitals are poorly managed and lack funds, and people have very low health insurance protection. [5]

As neighbouring Asian countries gain international recognition for their healthcare standards, Singapore is slowly being snubbed by medical tourists in favour of much cheaper options, that offer the same level of healthcare standard. Having a heart bypass in the Little Red Dot costs 41% more than in The Land of Smiles, and 106% more compared to Malaysia. Specialist services, once an advantage Singapore had over other neighbouring countries, is now void as others expand into the specialist sectors. Medical tourism to Singapore has also cooled off as major groups like Raffles Medical Group bring its healthcare services to other countries like Vietnam and Brunei, reducing the need for patients to travel. [6] Singapore will need to re-innovate herself, if she wants to continue positioning herself as an attractive medical destination.

Besides purely hospital-based medical care, India and Thailand have taken to promoting their well-known Ayurveda, Yoga, traditional spas and massages, as alternative relaxation therapies to further boost their medical tourism industry. [2]

Finally, medical tourism is not all about work and no play. Some medical tourists seize the opportunity to soak in and explore their destination country, transforming into true-blue holidaymakers, after their treatment in the country. In Thailand, you can visit the numerous temples, sample the street food, and relax at the beach. In India, you can visit the iconic Taj Mahal and experience the vibrant street atmosphere. In Singapore, you can feast on a smorgasbord of food in the tiny bustling city.


  1. https://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/media_centre/singapore_headlines/2012/201204/
  2. https://www.smu.edu.sg/perspectives/2016/02/26/re-inventing-singapores-medical-tourism-industry
  3. https://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/28/tv/medical-tourism-morgan-spurlock-inside-man/
  4. https://www.jointcommissioninternational.org/about/
  5. https://www.businessinsider.com/india-is-becoming-a-hub-for-medical-tourists-2014-6?IR=T&r=US&IR=T
  6. https://www.straitstimes.com/business/singapore-losing-medical-tourists-to-neighbours


by Cheryl Lee Zhi Qin

Cheryl likes to write and "stalk" dogs during her free time, and hopes to do so more often after graduating from National University of Singapore. She aims to become conversant in Korean or Japanese through dramas.

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