Can Taiwan broaden its appeal to medical tourists?

 

Taiwan has one of the best healthcare systems in Asia. The country has high-tech medicine (in terms of both treatment machinery, and laboratories) which, in combination with their clinical achievements, gives Taiwan a justifiably high international rating.

High quality healthcare in Taiwan is also backed up by an infrastructure that is well suited to attracting tourists. The main international airport in the capital, Taipei, connects Taiwan with flights from across the world. To encourage tourism, business and medical travel, the government has also relaxed visa requirements. US passport holders, plus visitors from many European countries, are now allowed a 90-day visa free stay, while travellers from several other countries can have a 30-day visa free stay. The remainder still have to apply for a landing visa upon arrival or need to apply for a visa in advance.

Taipei, with a population of over 2.6m, is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world and like many cities across Asia, it is a mix of contradictions. There are an overwhelming number of cyclists, non-smokers and pet lovers in the city; and the tall luxury granite buildings and shopping malls are mixed in with old, poorly maintained apartment buildings with metal roofs, traditional pagodas, foot spa massage salons, and street food markets. The use of technology is widespread. Uber, for example, is ubiquitous and their restaurant-to-door food delivery service UberEats is gaining popularity. Hot springs, gardens and museums also compete for tourist attention.

Medical travel to Taiwan is growing

For the last 10 years, the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) has actively promoted Taiwan’s overall medical services to other countries, via exhibitions, trade missions and showcasing several development projects.  It sees medical travel and health tourism as an important revenue source for the country, and says its target regions are Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Macau and other regions in Mainland China. TAITRA says it is also extending their healthcare targeting to the Middle East region.

More recently there have been efforts by the private healthcare sector to coordinate with TAITRA on promotional activity to international markets. Earlier in 2018, seven hospitals and clinics in Taiwan, specialising in eye care, dental care, rehabilitation and cosmetic surgery announced a plan to customise services for medical tourists.

The Government of Taiwan has also established a National Healthcare Evaluation system to certify hospitals that are reaching international standards. Other private hospitals in the country are accredited by JCI. (TAITRA says there are 15 Taiwanese hospitals and 2 clinics which are JCI accredited).

The main reasons for Chinese patients going to Taiwan is its proximity and lack of language barriers, making the whole healthcare experience much less of a challenge for them. Private healthcare providers in Taiwan also state that the cost of high-end treatments is significantly lower than the cost in the USA and some European countries such as Germany and the UK. Some indicative treatment prices for treatments in Taiwan include:

  • Coronary Artery Bypass Grafts: US$22,000 – US$30,000
  • Hip replacement: US$7,000 – US$8,400
  • Facelift: US$6,000 – US$6,500
  • IVF: US$7,000 – US$7,500
  • Gastric bypass: US$10,000
  • Dental fillings: US$30

These efforts are having an effect on increasing overall inbound medical travel to Taiwan. Ministry of Health and Welfare statistics show Taiwan welcomed 305,045 medical tourists in 2015, up 76% from 2012.  Numbers from this ministry and TAITRA differ. All who live in Taiwan and China are Chinese, which makes it hard to differentiate who is 'local' and who is defined as an 'international medical tourist'. A quick look at the reported data shows that the majority of patients come from Asia, with a much smaller number coming from the USA or Europe.

The reality in 2018 is a similar picture.  The 2018 Taiwan Healthcare Expo and the accompanying 2018 Med X Tech Summit Asia in Taipei at the end of 2018 were high-quality events showcasing Taiwan’s healthcare, pharmaceutical and health tech sectors. The make up of the foreign attendees however was a good reflection of who might be interested in medical travel to Taiwan.  Most international delegates were from other Asian countries (China, Singapore, Hong Kong), with just a few from non-Asian countries (United Kingdom, Australia, Israel).

What is affecting medical travel flow?

The common language in Taiwan that is attractive for Chinese patients is also restricting non-Chinese speaking medical travellers.

In the majority of hospitals, Chinese is widely spoken. However, other international languages including English are not common, especially for Taiwanese aged over 45. Hospital documents, signs and websites are only written in Chinese. It’s still not common for hospitals to offer an email address for foreign patients to submit a treatment request, which is now a basic expectation for international healthcare provision. Most hospital brochures just provide an address and phone number.

Many private hospitals seem sceptical about featuring their hospitals in directories or openly promoting their services. This reluctance is likely to have been influenced by the Government of Taiwan recently penalising a number of hospitals for advertising healthcare services, a policy which is in direct opposition to encouraging more international medical travellers.

When combined with a lack of international language communication in other areas (transportation, hotels, restaurants, banks), Taiwan today remains an unattractive medical travel destination for non-Asian patients.

Other challenges

And then beyond these domestic challenges, Taiwan is also in a geographically crowded healthcare market. Heavy hitter, South Korea, and only slightly further away medical travel leader, Malaysia, have high ambitions (and significant financial backing from their governments) to be key regional healthcare hubs for the international medical traveller. Thailand and the Philippines are also actively going after the same target groups. The nearby Hainan Boao Lecheng International Medical Tourism Pilot Zone is being heavily promoted by the Chinese government and is aiming for 5 million tourists, including 500,000 medical tourists, from Greater China, Chinese provinces, and other international countries.

Taiwan does have the healthcare service and quality on offer to international medical travellers, but it needs to rapidly adopt more international practices and significantly invest in areas of communication in order to grow its medical travel revenue with non-Asian patients.

For further country-specific news and analysis of the medical tourism market in Taiwan, visit the IMTJ Country Profile.

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