Thailand, with its modern and relatively cheap healthcare, has become a major destination for medical tourism. This trend brings billions of dollars into the Thai economy but the higher wages on offer in the private sector lure medical professionals away from the already overburdened public sector. A tax on medical tourism is one possible solution to redress the situation.


Thailand continues to be a medical hub for many medical tourists coming here in search of medical care

Chananyarak Phetcharat, DHL Express

The ‘land of smiles’ has come a long way since 2004, when the government started promoting the country as a destination for medical tourism among US, Japanese and European expatriates, and patients from nearby countries. A decade later, the Kasikorn Research Centre estimates medical tourism is bringing close to USD 3 billion into the Thai economy, up 15 percent year-over-year. International tourists underwent nearly 2.8 million medical treatments in 2015 alone.


According to Patients Beyond Borders, a publisher of international medical travel guidebooks, the cost of medical procedures in Thailand is up to 40-60 percent cheaper than out-of-pocket fees in the US, EU, and Japan. It comes as no surprise that companies are interested in participating in this small but attractive market. “Many patients come to Thailand from various locations, such as the Middle East, for more affordable healthcare,” points out Tatsuya Ikeda, managing director and chairman of the board at Daiichi Sankyo Thailand. “These patients, along with many middle-class Thai patients, want higher-end products and services and we are happy to provide these for them.”


“Thailand continues to be a medical hub for many medical tourists coming here in search of medical care,” explains Chananyarak Phetcharat, managing director for Thailand and Indochina at DHL Express. “Consequently, our focus has shifted to include the delivery of time-specific products to accommodate the needs of international as well as domestic patients,” she adds.


Bangkok’s Bumrungrad International Hospital has been a pioneer in the niche of medical tourism. It was the first hospital in Southeast Asia to receive the prestigious Joint Commission International (JCI) certification, the gold standard for healthcare services around the globe. Today the one-million-square-foot complex has over 900 full-time doctors, most of them US board-certified, while more than 30 hospitals across Thailand are already JCI accredited, more than in any other country in Southeast Asia. “Thailand has the potential to remain as a key medical hub in Southeast Asia due to the number of highly educated medical professionals and high-quality private hospitals,” confirms Christian Malherbe, country lead for Pfizer Thailand and Indochina.


But medical tourism has side effects. Higher salaries lure local physicians and medical staff into the more profitable private sector at the expense of Thailand’s universal healthcare system. This is an added burden for a country that has only 0.4 physicians per 1000 people, a figure which is less than half that of neighbours Malaysia and Vietnam. Thailand’s public healthcare sector is currently under financial strain. Taxing medical tourism may be a good way for the government to use this sector’s growth to subsidize the underfunded public system and improve overall access to healthcare.