Can Thailand become a regional health destination?

 

The RSTA argues that in light of the significant impact of the coronavirus crisis, the government should adopt a new way of thinking to promote the country as Asean's health tourism hub. The time is right they argue to develop a product mix for Thailand and make the country stronger.

Thailand is a major hub for medical tourism, drawing patients from Asia, the Middle East and beyond. In 2019, Thailand recorded 632,000 overseas patients according to government data. This makes it the second biggest global destination after Malaysia. Caution has to be used on figures however, as the 632,000 figure used by the government for 2019 was also the same figure for 2018, suggesting real figures for 2019 are unknown.

In related news, various key figures in tourism in Thailand joined an online discussion about the market. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) stated that so far in 2020, Thailand had only 6 million tourists, with a 65% decrease in tourism revenue predicted. The best prediction would be annual tourism revenue at 50% of the 2019 level. TAT stated that patterns of tourism will change, group travel will decline, tourists will spend less money and be cautious about hygiene issues. TAT is advocating a BEST strategy: B=booking in advance, E=environmental, S=safety and T=technology, and hope that campaigns will attract 2 million domestic tourists.

TAT is continuing to promote Thailand as a ‘resort of the world’ for medical and wellness. There will also be a new focus on telemedicine.

Major international hospitals added their perspective to the discussion, stating that patients remain afraid to go to hospital and that new hygiene and safety measures are here to stay. They predicted that more healthcare would move to customers’ homes and that telemedicine developments, robotic surgery, genetic testing and other technical ideas are needed to improve efficiency. For medical travel to resume, they believed there needed to be more partnerships between airlines and hospitals. They also saw potential in developing wellness programmes associated with historic health experience.

The Government of Thailand has said it will ease COVID-19 red tape to allow more patients from abroad to access treatments in Thailand. But COVID-19 restrictions have so far seen few foreign patients. Although there is no formal ban on foreign patients to Thailand, they need approval for travel. This can be slow and difficult to get.

Only 172 foreign patients were allowed in July and August, out of 740 people who had made official requests for entry.

More health facilities in Thailand will slowly be allowed to accept foreigners again, and more medical travellers are expected to come. In phase two of re-opening to medical tourism, another 100 hospitals and clinics will be approved to receive patients, up from 120 now.

Hospital operators claim the process has been slow and they have hundreds of overseas patients needing treatment. The claim some patients have died because they could not get into the country. Some patients need urgent treatment for heart disease, diabetes and cancer; and few countries in Asia are letting them in.

The government plans to allow medical tourists to cross land borders from neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia, both of which are major sources of patients for Thailand.

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