Medical tourism, once the exclusive preserve of the rich, is growing and changing as hospitals and clinics offer farflung patients advantages hard to come by in China whether it be high-tech therapy, less-expensive care or alternative treatments.

In China, home to a growing number of travelling patients, more foreign medical tourists are seeking care either to save money or for such treatments as traditional Chinese medicine.

“In European countries such as Turkey and Cyprus, more than half of people are not covered by public insurance, so Chinese medical institutions have big opportunities,” says Li Jingwen, general manager in Beijing for McBridge, a medical business consultant with offices in China and Germany.

At the same time, outbound tourists from China are starting to go for hospitals and clinics in many developed countries.

They are showing up not just with shopping bags and cameras, but also in increasing numbers with their medical records in countries like South Korea, Singapore, Europe and the United States.

They are filling hospital beds and surgical suites for treatments as diverse as plastic surgery, extensive checkups and cancer treatment.

A significant number of these medical tourists are wealthy Chinese who are bolstering the bottom line of hospitals and clinics by paying cash for high-end treatment. Medical centres are welcoming them, in some cases with services such as tailored menus.

The Korea Tourism Organization says that last year nearly 400,000 people flew to South Korea for cosmetic surgery, Chinese being the biggest number among them. After having surgery done on their eyelids or noses, they go sightseeing and shopping.

In Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Europe and the US an increasing number of Chinese patients are turning up for anti-aging therapy, cancer screening and treatment, giving birth or chronic-disease treatment.

About 60,000 Chinese have gone abroad every year to seek medical services in recent years, says the Shanghai Medical Tourism Products and Promotion Platform.

A McKinsey & Co report estimates that the global medical tourism market has been growing by 20 percent a year. In 2000, global medical tourism was valued at less than $10 billion and last year it was almost 10 times that.

Europe’s aging population has led to the further development of the medical care industry, Li says. In Germany, those 65 or older are more than 10 percent of the population, and people’s average spending on medical service is growing by 2 per cent every year.

“As society ages, overall consciousness of health is growing,” she says. “Good facilities and services attract Chinese upper middle class to get treatment there.”

Germany has a mature industry train and a basket of services for overseas tourists seeking medical treatment, Li says.

“In some hospitals, they provide prayer rooms, home country menus and dormitories for the traveling relatives.”

European hospitals are also happy to accept wealthy patients, industry sources say. “Hospitals are looking to soften tough economic times and fill beds by extending their market share overseas,” says Medical Tourism Magazine, which described an influx of patients to the United Kingdom as a financial windfall.

Eighteen of the UK’s National Health Trust foundation trust hospitals reported last year that despite the small numbers of international private patients being treated 7 per cent across the sample these patients were responsible for almost a quarter of total private income in these trusts, according to researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and York University.

That represented income of 42 million pounds ($71.9 million) across the 18 hospital trusts during 2010-2011.

“Their report found that medical tourists spent an estimated 219 million pounds on hotels, restaurants, shopping and transport in Great Britain,” the magazine says.

The research also showed more Britons going abroad for treatment. Lead author of the research Johanna Hanefeld said that contrary to some popular media reports, the UK is a net exporter of medical tourists. In 2010, an estimated 63,000 UK residents traveled abroad for treatment, while around 52,000 patients came for treatment in the UK, according to the research report.

The level of patients traveling to the UK has remained relatively stable over the last decade, while there has been a substantial increase in the number of UK residents travelling abroad for medical treatment.”

Wu Maochun, director of Ciming Oasis Health Management Hospital in Beijing, talks of the huge market potential.

Last year the company received 10,000 patients for advanced checkups, and among them 60 per cent came from outside the city. Nearly 100 patients opted to go abroad using its overseas medical tourism services.

Ciming has developed more than 50 partnerships around the world, including in Japan, Switzerland, Singapore, the US and South Korea.

Saint Lucia Consulting, a company opened in Beijing in 2011, previously told China Daily that in the past four years, it has provided Chinese corporate executives, the wealthy and their families with highly personalised medical tourism services, expert translation services and advice on their overseas medical treatments.

CEO Cai Qiang says the company has contracts in the US with Partners HealthCare, the largest network of hospitals affiliated with Harvard Medical School, including Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, McLean Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Liu Yuanli of Peking Union Medical College says there are big differences between medical tourists coming to China and those going overseas.

“Patients in Europe and the US usually choose overseas medical services when the overseas services are much cheaper, and they do this through commercial insurance, while Chinese tourists going aboard are looking for high-end medical services and mostly paying their own bills. They look for treatment for cancer or diseases that are hard to find in China.”

But compared with neighbouring countries such as South Korea and Thailand, medical tourism in China is still in its infancy.

Part of the reason is the stringent requirements of the Chinese government, says Liu Tingfang, a professor at the Institute for Hospital Management, Tsinghua University.

“Hospitals are required to have less than 10 per cent of high-end services so as to ensure the public’s medical services,” Liu from Tsinghua University says. “Moreover, there are few high-end medical services. We need to allow more private hospitals and foreign hospitals in China so that we can attract more international patients.”

Some have already opened. Hainan province has designated Sanya Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital as a pilot hospital and has been marketing services to Russia, the Middle East and northern Europe. It treats an average of 3,000 overseas patients a year with each patient spending $20,000, hospital head Chen Xiaoyong says. The hospital has treated 30,000 overseas patients.

Recently, Beijing and Shanghai also started such initiatives to expand the medical tourism market.

Liu from Tsinghua University says China needs to build a medical certification system accepted worldwide. “Only by showing certifications can we gain trust from international patients, and it also facilitates the reimbursement process of commercial insurance companies.”

Official figures show China has 14,200 hospitals at county level and above, and 1,500 tertiary-level hospitals at the top level. Liu suggests that the government pick some as pilot hospitals to offer more market-oriented medical services. “Otherwise we will miss the opportunities in this niche market,” Liu says

Lack of recognition and certification is a big hurdle for TCM in Europe, experts say. Since TCM arrived in Europe, its treatments have been classified as supplements rather than medicine, and they cannot be sold in pharmacies.

(c)2014 the Asia News Network (Hamburg, Germany). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Photo Credit: A woman lies on an operating table during a facelift surgery at a private plastic surgery clinic in Budapest, March 1, 2012. Bernadett Szabo / Reuters