Fahad Albusaidi had never heard of Bumrungrad Hospital until he arrived in Bangkok from Oman, accompanying his mother who was booked for treatment.
“If you speak to anyone in Arabic and say Bumrungrad, they will not get it,” said Albusaidi, while waiting for his mother to receive a check-up. “But if you say American Hospital, they will know exactly.”
Bumrungrad Hospital started promoting itself as a medical tourism destination in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when many wealthy Thais lost their fortunes and could no longer afford the American-run establishment’s costly services.
In 2002, it became the first hospital in Asia to win accreditation from the Joint Commission International, an arm of the organisation that reviews and accredits US hospitals.
There are more than 30 Thai hospitals with accreditation now, with dozens more in India, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore. Bumrungrad’s marketing director Kenneth Mays is not overly worried about the new competition.
“You learn a lot in 15 years of serving millions of international patients,” Mays said. “Countries like Korea get excited over 1,000 to 2,000 international patients a year. We see that many in a few days.”
Last year, about 2.4mn foreigners came to Thailand for health services, including treatment at the numerous spas, earning the country an estimated 14bn baht ($466mn), according to the Tourism Ministry.
Thailand has succeeded in medical tourism for many of the same reasons it has succeeded in mass tourism: good service, cheap prices and up-to-date facilities.
“The main reason these people are coming to Thailand is because of the service levels Thailand is able to provide,” said Ralf Krewer, international marketing manager of the Bangkok Hospital group. “And they like it here because they can live a bit freer.”
The Middle East has always been the country’s main market for medical tourism.
Malaysia’s recent entry into the medical tourism market has not yet lured Middle Eastern patients away from Thailand, Thai hospital officials say.
“Malaysia has entered the market very strongly but they have had limited success in the Middle East,” Krewer said. “What is seen negatively is that it is a Muslim country, believe it or not.”
Thailand’s appeal as a fun place to spend time in extends to the medical tourism market too, he speculated.
With the proliferation of world-class medical facilities in Asia, there has been some market segmentation in recent years.
“Indonesia has 900,000 people a year who leave for healthcare, mostly to Singapore and Malaysia,” Bumrungrad’s marketing director Mays said.
Singapore has its niche in specialist treatment and proximity to Indonesia and Malaysia. “I always bring my family to Singapore for any medical concerns,” said Matthew Turret, a Kuala Lumpur-based investment banker. “The facilities there are top of the line and it’s just a few minutes away from Malaysia.”
Thailand benefits from its proximity to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, four countries with still rudimentary medical facilities.
“We have a good opportunity across our borders, because the higher-end people in these countries come to Thailand for their medical treatment,” said Wilaiwan Tawittsiri, deputy governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
The second-largest overseas market at Bumrungrad is Myanmar, where medical facilities are notoriously poor.
Two other growing markets for Thailand’s competitive hospitals are China and Russia, the source of 2.7mn and 1.3mn tourists, respectively, last year.
Marketing schemes area being fine-tuned to make sure the visiting tourists don’t miss Thailand’s medical attractions.
“The Chinese are interested in anti-ageing, stem-cell treatment and fertility therapy,” Wilaiwan said. “The Russian market is very interested in weight-loss.”