Keep an Eye on Asia, Med Travel Expert Advises

by Maria Lenhart

When it comes to the future of medical tourism – and its potential for travel agents – Asia offers a number of key indicators.

That’s the view of medical travel expert Josef Woodman, publisher of Patients Beyond Borders. Woodman travels extensively to research trends and health care infrastructure development around the world.

In a conversation with Travel Market Report, Woodman shared insights gleaned from his recent travels, as well as his observations on medical tourism trends closer to home.

You recently returned from a research trip in Asia – what did you learn from that?
Woodman: Something that has major implications for the health care industry is that there are huge numbers of Asians entering the middle class. There’s a rising class that wants access to what everybody else wants, including Western-style health care. It’s important for travel agents to understand this.

Why is this significant for medical tourism and for travel agents involved in this market?
Woodman: It means a continuing boom in excellent health care facilities in Asia. They can’t expand rapidly enough. This is true of every American-accredited hospital in Asia that I’ve visited in the past three years.

This is less true of Latin America – that region is still a little slower in growth. They don’t have the investment structure yet. That’s why we’re not seeing huge facilities in Mexico or Costa Rica, at least not yet. By contrast, there are 3,000-bed hospitals being built in Seoul.

Which destinations in Asia have the biggest potential for attracting American medical travelers?
Woodman: Malaysia, which is looking at 580,000 medical tourists this year, is a big one. This will continue to grow at a huge rate. It’s a place where the health care system has really improved and where there is a lot of value. They do well on both medical and wellness travel, including recuperative spas and preventative care. It’s also a country that is more culturally friendly for Americans than, say, Mexico or India.

What makes Malaysia culturally friendly to Americans?
Woodman: Many Malaysians are English-speaking, including the doctors, nurses and other health care workers. So that’s an important advantage right there.

Plus they are targeting U.S. retirees who are looking for an affordable place to live. Malaysia is building large retirement communities, with a ‘Malaysia is my second home’ theme. Health care facilities are part of this infrastructure designed to appeal to an aging population.

How is Singapore as a medical tourism destination?
Woodman: Singapore is more costly than Malaysia. In fact, you’ve got Singaporeans traveling to Malaysia for care. There is too much demand in Singapore and not enough supply.

However, Singapore does have star doctors that patients may want to seek out. They have great stem cell therapies, oncology and clinical work. There are very advanced specialties that might not be available in Malaysia or Thailand.

Taiwan and South Korea have a lot of health care infrastructure. Are these countries attracting Americans?
Woodman: Korea is a really important medical destination, with great infrastructure and diagnostics, but there are language and cultural barriers for Americans there. The costs are relatively high too. Korea is spending a lot of money to attract Americans, but is not getting them. Americans are going to more culturally friendly destinations. Taiwan is a similar case.

How about Thailand?
Woodman: Thailand is one of the granddaddies of medical tourism. Bumrungrad International Hospital is there. It was the first hospital in Asia to win international certification from JCI [Joint Commission International] and it’s a beautiful facility. It cares for 25,000 Americans every year. It’s great for clinical care.

What about destinations other than Asia?
Woodman: There is plenty going on closer to home. For example, the Bahamas Medical Center has a huge program for international patients. It’s targeting Americans with big savings. They will even fly surgeons in from the U.S., so you know who is doing the work.

Is Canada also a market for some of this new medical tourism infrastructure?
Woodman: The wait-time for certain produces are still long in Canada. Their system is running out of money and there is a lack of staff. So Canadians are heading overseas, including to Asia. Nonstop over-the-pole air service to places like Korea and Taiwan make Asia a fairly convenient option for Canadians.

What do you think of Walmart’s announcement that it will cover some medical travel for its U.S. employees? (See: Walmart Offers Medical Travel Coverage to Employees, Nov. 15, 2012)

Woodman: This has huge significance. Walmart has a presence in 15 countries, some of them in Asia. Their medical travel policy could become global.

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