Thailand hospitals step up IVF treatments to draw more Chinese tourists | Healthcare Asia Magazine
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Thailand hospitals step up IVF treatments to draw more Chinese tourists

Hiring more doctors, offering hotel stays, and wellness packages help boost medical tourism.

Even if China is not the dominant patron of medical tourism in Thailand, analysts expect that hospitals in the Land of Smiles will be smirking and grinning over positive margins as Chinese tourists’ demand for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) markets heightens. The reason? The end of China’s one-child policy is taking a toll on its birth rate.

Waritthorn Kaewmuang, equity research analyst at UOB Kay Hian Securities Thailand, said some of the youth in China might not want to have kids possibly due to low income may contribute to higher dependence on IVF treatments abroad.

China’s population had fallen for the first time in six decades. In 2022, according to government data, there were about 6.77 births per 1,000 people in China, down from 7.52 births in 2021.

Kaewmuang said Thailand’s IVF treatment is also attractive to Chinese tourists due to its above-average success rate of 48%.

Another factor why Thailand is attractive for IVF treatment is because it is over 50% cheaper compared to costs in China, Shin Thant Aung, Director at YCP Solidiance Thailand, said. He added that this could be an advantage as IVF is normally not covered by healthcare insurance.

“For example, China’s IVF treatment is around US$10,000. But in Thailand, you're gonna get it at US$3,000,” said Aung.

China’s policy for IVF treatments is also strict when it comes to gender, which is why some medical tourists go to Thailand to get their fertility treatments, Aung noted. In a news article, it was mentioned that Beijing banned access to IVF for single or unmarried women.

Proximity is also another factor why Thailand is attractive. Thailand is nearer to China compared to other countries that offer IVF treatment. The distance between China and Thailand is 1,391 miles if you travel by plane compared to the distance between the mainland and Turkey, one of the most preferred nations for IVF treatment, at 3,706 miles.

“Between China and Thailand, it is closer compared to Turkey. If you compare the distance, the flight costs, and also the average operation cost, which is around half compared to most of the countries. This is one of the reasons that China seems to benefit,” Kaewmuang said in a recent Healthcare Asia interview.

In 2022, the top source markets in Thailand were Malaysia, India, and Singapore. The Thailand government said it is expecting to receive 30 million tourists this year from its initial projection of 28 million tourists. About seven million to eight million of them are likely to come from China.

Low number of specialty healthcare staff

The challenge for Thailand’s IVF treatment market is its inadequate number of physicians compared to Turkey, Kaewmuang said. To compare, a 2020 World Bank report showed that Thailand had over 0.9 physicians for every 1,000 people, whilst in Turkey, the ratio is 1.9 per 1,000 population.

Kasem Prunratanamala, head of CGS-CIMB’s Thailand research, said there is a need to resolve the low supply of sub-specialty doctors, such as professionals in IVF.

“With more doctors [and] better equipment, it allows Thailand to develop further in various sub-specialty areas, which in turn would attract more international patients,” advised Prunratanamala when asked how the market can address sub-specialty doctor shortage.

One way of resolving this is to offer competitive or higher pay for doctors performing surgery for sub-specialty areas.

“The higher pay may force new physicians and new doctors to go to [Turkey] instead of [Thailand],” said Kaewmuang.

Prunratanamala said the Bumrungrad International Hospital and Bangkok Dusit Medical Services (BDMS) are amongst the hospitals that will benefit from the reopening and IVF treatment demand from Chinese medical tourists.

When analysed, Aung said these hospitals have a high-profit margin, with Bumrungrad having a 38% profit margin in 2021 whilst BDMS has over 30% gross profit margin. Bumrungrad, one of the most expensive and popular hospitals, accommodates a lot of Chinese patients.

Bumrungrad has a fertility centre that has a team of more than 20 specialists and personnel who can provide counseling for couples with infertility concerns. The costs of fertility screening packages depend on their treatment but range from THB9,600 (US$280) up to THB17,000 (US$496).

Attracting Chinese tourists

The first strategy to attract Chinese tourists, Prunratanamala said, is implementing visa packages and offering hotel services, especially during the economic revival in China. 

In news reports, the Thailand government said it will start issuing one-year visas for people seeking medical treatment. It approved a measure that proposes to lower visa prices to THB5,000 (US$145) from THB6,000 (US$174).

Asked if there will be a competitive advantage by offering discounts, Prunratanamala said Chinese tourists are “not price sensitive” for IVF treatments, as long as the success rate is high.

“If you get a lot of discounts, but the treatment fails. You’ve lost your money,” he said.

Another strategy is by leveraging its wellness segment. It can attract more tourists to visit the market, said Kaewmuang. 

In 2017, the Thailand National Statistics Office said the number of tourists that visited the market for healthcare and wellness was around 3.3 million. Back then, the ministry has been promoting wellness and medical services globally including regenerative services, alternative medicine, cardio science, musculoskeletal, dental services, IVF, cancer treatment, surgeries, eye care, and precision medicine.

An example of a wellness package is Bumrungrad’s VitaLife clinic, which has been serving tourists in over 150 markets. It has beauty services to solve concerns such as psoriasis, hair loss, and acne, amongst others.

The next strategy to drive up the medical tourist market is a hospital collaboration with Ping An Health Insurance in China, Kaewmuang said.

BDMS is one of the hospitals that inked an agreement with Ping An Health Insurance in 2020. The partnership goal is to woo about 1,000 to 4,000 Chinese patients annually in a bid to generate from THB1b to THB2b in revenue.

Another strategy to do more for Thailand’s medical tourism is for hospitals, especially big ones, to invest in language and cultural training so that health workers may communicate better with Chinese patients, Aung said.

“Most of the patients are complaining that the translation in the hospitals is not very reliable, or they want a better translation between medical doctors and also themselves,” he said.

Cheaper medical checkups

Aside from IVF treatment, Thailand’s healthcare is also attractive for its cheap medical checkups but they do not cut corners when offering the best healthcare services.

Prunratanamala said the cost of treatment depends on age, type, and number of tests that the hospital will run.  For example, a 50-year-old man may pay THB50,000 (US$1,457) to THB80,000 (US$2,331) for medical checkups.

On cheaper prices, Aung said Thailand’s checkups are 50% cheaper compared to Singapore. But comparing prices with the US and Europe, Thailand charges 10 times cheaper for medical checkups.

Another reason to fly to Thailand for hospital services is the faster turnaround time, Aung said. For instance, when you get hospitalised in Thailand, it will only take a maximum of three days because state-of-the-art technology is in play, he said.

By the numbers, more than half (53%) of Chinese medical tourists in Thailand go for checkups; 8% of them seek cancer treatment; 7.5% for orthopedics treatment, and 4.5% come in for coronary artery protection, said Aung.

Medical tourism competition

Thailand isn’t the only market striving to drive up its economy through medical tourism. Its neighbours, Malaysia and India, with their proximity to China, are tough competition.

“India can be quite a big competitor because of its state-of-the-art technology,” said Kaewmuang.   

ResearchAndMarkets.com’s data showed that India medical tourism market is projected to create US$35.12b in 2027 from US$5.63b in 2021, on account of global medical tourist arrivals in 2027.

A Fact.MR report showed that the Malaysia Medical Tourism market is seen to grow at a compound annual rate of 4.5% between 2021 and 2028. The market is expected to reach US$ 5.1b by the end of 2028 from US$1.2b in 2020. Still, the demand for Malaysia’s medical tourism is expected to rise over this forecast period.

Comparing checkup prices, Aung said India’s health checkups are much more affordable than Thailand’s services. 

Another huge competitor for Thailand is Singapore because it provides “better quality” healthcare services.

In a 2014 National Library of Medicine study, Thailand and Singapore each had 13 hospitals accredited by Joint Commission International (JCI), an international healthcare quality standard for patient care. In the past three years, 17 more Thailand facilities received the endorsement, compared to Singapore’s nine healthcare facilities.

Global protective solutions, a programme dedicated to medical travel, cited Thailand, India, Singapore, and South Korea as the top medical tourism destinations in Asia in 2021.

A KPMG research also cited Thailand as the sixth country for medical travel globally. The research said medical treatment in other markets is thriving because of anonymity. With anonymity, individuals may travel for healthcare treatment and avoid queries from their friends and relatives about details of treatment.

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