Demand for healthcare has grown globally, associated with rises in income and education attainment among global populations. Changes in demography, such as aging populations in developed countries and shifts in disease burden from infectious to chronic diseases also stimulate the demand for more, high quality health services. The availability of these services in foreign nations at competitive costs combined with the lack of availability, long lines and high costs in their home countries has fuelled a new wave of healthcare consumers: medical tourists.
Medical tourism is defined as patients traveling abroad to seek health care outside of their healthcare jurisdiction. The medical treatments are sometimes combined with recreational activities, hence the term ‘medical tourism’. In Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, medical tourism has emerged as an industry and has become a key economic strategy in these two countries. Malaysia and Thailand have also become main medical hubs in the region, attracting patients from within and outside Southeast Asia.
The Birth of Medical Tourism
Before the east Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998 was a time of economic growth in Southeast Asia. The middle class with high education attainment was expanding, living mainly in large cities. These people put significant pressure on governments and healthcare providers for higher quality medical care in response to frustration with perceived lower quality and responsiveness of public providers. The demand resulted in the formation of private health sectors in many Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia and Thailand. However, these private hospitals suffered after the financial crash, due to the devaluation of the Malaysian ringgit and the Thai baht, soaring prices of imported medical supplies and technologies, rising unemployment and losses of savings, which pushed previous fee-paying clientele back to using public services (Chee 2008; Turner 2007). In response to their limited clientele private hospitals attracted foreign customers with the help of their governments and used the devalued currency as a prominent marketing point. Both Malay and Thai private hospitals capitalized on their ability to promote medical services and travel at highly competitive prices, which has been successful to attract wealthy foreign patients who perceive the medical treatment as high quality at great value (Chongsuvivatwong et al. 2011). Medical tourism has since become a highly lucrative industry in southeast Asia.
Medical tourism in Malaysia and Thailand has been greatly supported by the government, due to obvious economic benefits such as foreign investment in public health infrastructure and job creation. Revenues and reduction of emigration of healthcare workers to other countries such as the United States of America also incentivizes governments to help this industry grow (Pocock and Phua 2011). Economic development in these countries would then...