Will Thailand Maintain Its Place As The Favoured Destination For Australian Medical Tourism?

Thailand has in recent years established itself as one of Asia’s pre-eminent destinations for medical tourism, particularly for people from Australia looking for cheaper cosmetic surgery and dental surgery procedures that are available at home.

The reasons why are very clear: both individual hospitals and the medical system in Thailand, in general, have been recognized internationally with numerous awards that testify to the quality of the medical treatment that the country’s best institutions provide.

For instance, Thailand currently has 37 hospitals that are accredited by Joint Commission International (JCI), the global leader when it comes to the recognition and accreditation of international healthcare providers, and the country is ranked by Nomad Capitalist as the third best country in the world for medical tourism.

Similarly, individual hospitals have outstanding international reputations. For instance, Bangkok Hospital Bangkok won the Asia Pacific Hospital of the Year and Thailand Hospital of the Year awards at the 2018 Global Health and Travel Awards, along with the award for Dental Service Provider of the Year. Bangkok HospitalPattaya won the award for International Cosmetic Surgery Clinic Of The Year in the 2015 International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) awards.

Establishing this important niche for itself in the international medical tourism market would, therefore, seem to have been a goal that Thailand has consciously been aiming for.

However, there are some potential changes with regard to the state regulation of healthcare costs that could impact on the country’s position in the very competitive world of medical tourism.

The Potential Impact of Regulating Prices for Healthcare

An announcement by the Commerce Ministry late in 2018 that it plans for all medical-related fees, including drugs, supplies and service charges, to be subject to price control looks set to create a three-way tussle between the authorities, private hospitals in Thailand, and consumer groups.

Essentially, this means that at private hospitals, price ceilings and what are termed reasonable rates for treatment will be determined centrally by a government-appointed subcommittee.

While on the face of it, this may seem a reasonable proposition, the ramifications for Thailand’s burgeoning medical tourism sector could be catastrophic, and as such, it has been vigorously opposed by both the Private Hospital Association and the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

The primary reason for this proposed move by the government is that private hospitals charge more for their drugs and medical services than their public counterparts. However, it is argued that this is actually a result of legislation in the Medical Facilities Act of 1988, which prescribes how many medical staff private hospitals are required to hire, and sets down how much they have to invest in advanced medical equipment — restrictions that do not apply to state-run hospitals. Likewise, private hospitals receive no state subsidies.

It is also being argued that private hospitals in Thailand offering treatment for both locals and medical tourists should be free to operate their businesses on market principles and that demand is ultimately a more efficient way for them to determine their price structures.

Many believe that price controls will lead to reduced investment in skilled surgeons and medical equipment, two areas that have helped to make Thailand a leading destination in Asia for medical tourism from countries like Australia, where comparable costs for cosmetic surgery and dental surgery procedures are far higher.

While it is unclear at this stage whether under the proposed legislation price controls would apply to Thais, foreigners, or both, what is clear is that any reduction at Thai private hospitals in the quality of the medical treatment they offer or the number of qualified clinicians they can apply, will very likely lead to medical tourists seeking out other destinations in Asia, like Malaysia and Singapore, rather than Thailand.

There is also concern being expressed that if the number of foreigners coming to Thailand for medical treatments, like plastic surgery and dental surgery, begins to fall, this will also impact negatively on the tourism industry. This is because large numbers of medical tourists from countries like Australia also combine a holiday and sightseeing with their treatment. If they stop coming to Thailand, it is argued, other sectors beyond hospitals will also likely suffer a downturn.

All parties are hoping that a suitable solution to the current impasse can be found soon so that Thailand can continue to be a leading medical hub in the region.

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