Countries across Asia are pouring resources into medical tourism, hoping to attract patients from overseas seeking advanced treatments and medical checks.
China in particular is making a serious effort as it aims to grow foreign tourism and benefit financially.
Japan is also seeking to expand medical tourism, but has run into difficulties securing enough doctors and training interpreters with medical expertise.
Beijing’s Haidian District is home to numerous government agencies, universities, research institutes and other important offices.
Beijing Yuho Rehabilitation Hospital, also located in the district, is planning this autumn to open a dedicated facility for foreign patients.
The facility, with polite nurses and sparkling rooms reminiscent of a hotel, is designed so patients can be comfortable throughout their treatment.
The hospital has gathered the latest medical devices from around the world. One example is a pool in the rehabilitation facility that changes depth at the touch of a button.
But Yuho Hospital does not just perform surgery and dispense drugs. It also incorporates ideas from traditional Chinese herbal medicine when offering pain relief.
“We want to offer medical services that lead the world by fusing Eastern and Western medicine,” said Ning Li, director of the hospital.
The hospital even offers patients tours on herbal medicine culture and other topics.
And with its central location, patients can visit the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and other nearby tourist spots during their stays.
China has 46 medical facilities that have been accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI), an American hospital accreditation system that is seen as an indicator of advanced medical care. The China figure is the highest for an Asian country, followed by Thailand with 44 JCI-accredited facilities.
One reason why China is so enthusiastic about medical tourism is that members of its own wealthy class often go abroad for treatment, analysts said.
Increasing trust in China’s medical system among this group would help stem the flow of wealth outside the country.
It is unclear how many rich Chinese patients are accepted in such facilities.
A cheaper option
Patients tend to go abroad for advanced medical care if it is cheaper than in their home countries.
According to the Development Bank of Japan, cardiac valve replacement surgery costs about US$170,000 in the United States, but only about $36,000 in South Korea and about $1,700 in India.
Seeking cutting-edge care in developing countries has become more popular among Arab patients in particular, as it became more difficult for them to enter the United States after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
According to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, Thailand welcomed about 2.5 million medical tourists in 2012, who spent about 120 billion baht.
The Japan Tourism Agency has estimated that the global market for medical tourism in 2012 was worth about $100 billion, which represented growth of about 1.7 times over the six years prior.
Medical tourists do not visit only countries with advanced medical systems, like the United States or Germany.
The level of care in developing countries is also improving, as doctors who have studied cutting-edge techniques in the United States and Europe return home.
About 70 countries and regions are actively promoting medical tourism. Asian nations in particular stand out because of their low prices and advanced techniques.
Hospitals are also seeking to differentiate themselves in terms of service.
“We recruit staff who have worked in hotels,” an official at a hospital in Singapore said.
“We answer inquiries from overseas within 24 hours,” an official of a South Korean hospital said.
Gov’t remains undetermined in overseas patients strategy
Japan started to become serious about medical tourism after the government called for promoting the admittance of patients from overseas in its growth strategy for 2010.
Although the government has provided some support, such as by offering medical residence visas since 2011, too little action has been taken and progress has been slow.
The medical visas cover everything from health checks to cutting-edge medical care, and offer stays of up to six months for the patient and family members.
In 2014, 611 such visas were issued. When patients on short-term visas are included, it is estimated that Japan receives about 100,000 medical tourists per year.
In campaigns abroad, the government has promoted medical institutions that are passionate about accepting foreign patients.
Taking advantage of its status as a national strategic special zone, the Narita municipal government in Chiba Prefecture is seeking to establish a university medical school for overseas students that is staffed by elite instructors from other countries.
To be built on land close to Narita Airport, a hospital attached to the university is to serve as an international medical facility that can accept medical tourists.
Yet many hurdles remain. Interpreters are needed when dealing with foreign patients. And while prices here are lower than in the United States, they are much higher than in other Asian countries.
But the biggest problem is the lack of doctors. There has been opposition to having doctors care for medical tourists.
“If foreign patients willing to pay high prices for medical care are made a high priority, treatments for Japanese patients could take a backseat,” an official of the Japan Medical Association said.
Japan has only 13 JCI-accredited medical facilities.
While the government is promoting medical tourism to Japan, manufacturers of high-end medical devices, such as Toshiba Corp. and Olympus Corp., are enthusiastically seeking export markets.
The government provides support for exports of endoscopes and computed tomography devices.
“To compete internationally, Japan needs a clear direction, such as focusing on specialized fields,” said Kayo Uemura, an expert on medical tourism at the Development Bank of Japan.
Whether inviting patients in or sending products out, it appears the government needs to refine its strategy.
A form of overseas travel for cutting-edge treatment, health checks or other medical services. Nations such as Thailand have actively promoted this as a source of foreign currency since the 2000 Asian financial crisis. The market in Japan could be worth as much as 550 billion yen by 2020, according to one estimate.