For and against medical tourism in Thailand

“Why go for tuk-tuk level care when there’s a medical Mercedes up the road for just a bit more?” The words of wisdom come from one of the many Australians who have travelled to Thailand for medical and wellness treatments.

The industry is flourishing, with Thailand welcoming around four million medical tourists a year (medical travellers might be the more responsible term). Florida-based International Healthcare Research Center (IHRC) rates Thailand as the fifth-best country, out of 46 international destinations, for medical travel.

Sixty-one Thai hospitals now hold accreditation from the independent Joint Commission International (JCI), the body that certifies overseas hospitals aspiring to meet the same standards of quality and safety as required in the United States.

Competent English is spoken by professionals in many hospitals in Thailand. But what are the vital questions to ask before considering medical travel there?

TREATMENTS

Thai private hospitals holding JCI accreditation offer a wide range of services to medical travellers, as do others without that accreditation. A recent survey showed the treatments most often sought by foreign clients include general medical care, surgeries, orthopaedics, IVF, dental care and check-ups. Requests for gastric sleeve surgery are also on the rise.

Elective cosmetic surgery is a major segment in the international medical travel industry. Thai institutions have long specialised in reworking the imperfect bellies, breasts, noses, stomachs, teeth, and more, that look back at us from the morning mirror. Dentistry, a significant sector within medical travel, is increasingly popular with Australian clients.

Therapy in Thailand.
Camera IconTherapy in Thailand. Credit: John Borthwick/The West Australian

WELLNESS

Not all medical travel is mainstream. Non-invasive “wellness” treatments are popular, with select upmarket resorts offering residential packages, typically of around three days, that may include Ayurvedic therapies, detox, acupressure, yoga, reflexology and hydrotherapy, plus traditional Thai massage. Several private, long-stay havens specialise in drug and alcohol withdrawal and addiction rehabilitation.

One model wellness provider is Bangkok’s RAKxa Wellness & Medical Retreat set on 30 ha of Chao Phraya riverfront. Described as Thailand’s “first fully integrative wellness and medical retreat”, purpose-built RAKxa specialises in personal health assessments, hydrotherapy, diet and exercise regimens, plus luxury villa accommodation and nutrition. It is not a cosmetic or surgical institution but is able to care for patients in post-operative recovery.

RESEARCH FIRST

When it comes to medical treatments, the old phrase “buyer beware” should be kept in mind. Consult websites such as Patients Beyond Borders. Go online and do comparison research on hospitals, surgeons and medical travel agencies. Follow their Facebook forums. Where possible, seek recommendations from past patients before making a decision.

Relaxation in Thailand.
Camera IconRelaxation in Thailand. Credit: Supplied

MEDICAL HOLIDAY?

Wellness can be a holiday. Surgery is not. Bangkok and Chiang Mai are among the most popular city destinations for medical travel, along with coastal resorts Hua Hin, Koh Samui, Phuket and Pattaya. Some agents promote their medical packages with the promises of “have a tropical holiday with your surgery on the cheap.” Successful-outcome medical travel is almost the opposite of that. Most substantial procedures involve surgery under a general anaesthetic, followed by significant after-care and recovery time.

The least relevant aspect of a medical event is that it happens at a tropical tourist destination. A too-early excursion to the beach, bars and shopping malls is a recipe for contagion that can compromise recovery, and may lead to re-admission. It is wiser to think principally in terms of medical travel, not tourism.

PITFALLS

The quality of overseas medical care is often questioned by professional bodies such as the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Dental Association. This is most frequently raised in the case of complications or substandard work requiring later redress and repair.

Responsible providers in the medical travel industry also acknowledge this possibility. “There are inherent risks associated with all types of surgery, no matter where they are performed,” notes Daniela Pratico, CEO of Medi Makeovers, a long-established Australian agency that specialises in Thailand cosmetic and other surgeries.

Evaluation in Thailand.
Camera IconEvaluation in Thailand. Credit: Supplied

INSURANCE

Understand that Australia’s Medicare does not cover medical expenses incurred overseas. Similarly, standard travel insurance will not cover complications from elective overseas procedures. Medi Makeovers offers “fly-back cover” (from Australia to Thailand) should complications arise. An American company, Global Protective Solutions offers coverage for overseas surgery and “complication protection”.

ASSURANCE

The best providers cover much more than the medical/dental dimension of the journey. Ms Pratico adds that her company now offers pre-travel Zoom consultation face to face with the surgeon/dentist, post-op follow-ups for 12 months including surgeon consultations where necessary.

PRICING

General price guidelines for procedures can be researched online at hospital websites. Overall, the cost of Thailand medical procedures are on average 60 per cent lower than those in Western countries and with minimal waiting times involved.

Thailand has an extensive state public hospital system, also offering a high standard of health care. Elective procedures at them are usually cheaper than in the private sector, although public hospitals rarely if ever pursue JCI accreditation.

With cosmetic surgery in particular, avoid the bargain end of the market and choose quality care (and after-care) every time over lower prices. Look for a provider that uses only certified plastic reconstructive surgeons – highest calibre medical professors. Similarly with dental work.

It may cost more — the Mercedes vs tuk-tuk model — but you’re worth it.

Using tech in Thailand.
Camera IconUsing tech in Thailand. Credit: Supplied

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

+ Discuss the options with your Australian doctor or dentist.

+ Consult an experienced, Australia-based medical travel agency that specialises in your concern such as cosmetic or other surgery, or dentistry.

+ Choose a package that covers all medical treatments, quality accommodation, transfers and more.

+ Don’t under-estimate the post-op recuperation period (the best operators will require a minimum stay).

+ Have top-level travel insurance.

+ Consider a medical or 60-day Thai visa, as opposed to a 28-day tourist visa.

Using the latest equipment in Thailand.
Camera IconUsing the latest equipment in Thailand. Credit: Supplied

INFORMATION

+ Medi Makeovers, medimakeovers.com

+ RAKxa Wellness & Medical Retreat, rakxawellness.com

+ Patients Beyond Borders, patientsbeyondborders.com

+ Medical Tourism, medicaltourism.com

+ Global Protective Solutions, globalprotectivesolutions.com

+ Joint Commission international, jointcommissioninternational.org

+ John Borthwick was a guest of Royal Thai Consulate-General, Sydney. They have not seen or approved this story.

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