Patients a virtue after lockdown
Wellness clinics are eager to receive foreigners seeking care
Foreign patients are among the first international arrivals set to land on Thai territory after three months of lockdown.
With pandemic anxiety gripping the global community -- including Thailand, which used to be a traveller-friendly destination with almost 40 million visitors last year -- the reopening policy is a critical point for the government to consider.
A key aspect of the policy is how to let inbound guests visit without triggering new infections that could lead to a deteriorating economic scenario.
To find a way out, state agencies have devised a solution to bring in patients that need medical treatment in Thailand, while avoiding the term "medical tourism" to allay public concerns about the country rushing to reopen the country for tourists too soon.
In the light of this circumstance, foreign patients still must test negative for Covid-19 before arrival and submit to a 14-day quarantine at a medical institution.
They must travel by air with a maximum of three people allowed to accompany them. Those carers must pass the same screening process.
While medical tourism is muted at the moment, its prospects have lured many countries to jump into the market.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) set a goal to become the "Medical and Wellness Resort of the World" by 2024, riding on the reputation of a public healthcare system viewed as effectively containing the coronavirus outbreak.
According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global wellness economy is worth $4.5 trillion. Of that value, wellness tourism accounts for $639 billion, with Asia emerging as the top gainer in wellness tourism trips and revenue.
The Sports Clinic is one of the facilities at the BDMS Wellness Clinic.
Thailand ranks 13th in wellness tourism revenue.
"Receiving medical treatment in Thailand costs 50-75% lower than the same treatment in the United States, and we have 61 JCI-accredited hospitals in the country, which provide trustworthy standards," said TAT governor Yuthasak Supasorn.
Along with bargain prices, Thailand has become known for its convenience and accessibility. Patients don't face a long wait in the queue for medical treatments, which is often a problem in many countries.
Famous Thai hospitality and ample attractions are also part of the mix that has led to accelerating growth in the medical and wellness market, which typically sees 3.2 million international tourists with 45 billion baht in total spending.
Mr Yuthasak said that while public concerns about heath and safety remain, the agency will push the wellness programme full-force once the government gives the green light for medical tourism.
For now, the agency will shift its focus to overseas Thais, aiming to bring 1 million of them back home to receive medical and wellness treatment by providing telemedicine as a preliminary check-up.
An online platform will be created for them so they can seek medical consultations with experts. This in turn can lead to an appointment with a hospital or wellness centre in Thailand offering more affordable packages than those abroad.
Srisuda Wanapinyosak, deputy governor of the TAT for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, said that while Thailand has promoted medical tourism for many years, in the wake of the pandemic it decided to extend the target to wellness activities to serve people looking to prevent disease before falling ill.
If the plan is successful, the benefits of this market can reach out to more stakeholders in the hospitality sector, especially hotels and resorts nationwide that are struggling now.
"We will create a 'hotelistic' approach that will combine hotel and holistic services together," Ms Srisuda said. "Hotel operators are encouraged to partner with accredited hospitals to deliver some preventive medicine in their places, instead of flocking to hospitals that some people may not want to visit."
She said the TAT has a plan to offer specific medical treatment based on each country's demand. Interaction via an online marketplace will be launched with regional targets first.
For instance, 70% of medical tourists from Cambodia seek treatment for accidental injury and obstetric care, while Chinese market is leaning towards anti-ageing treatment and in vitro fertilisation.
Tanupol Virunhagarun, chief operating officer and director of BDMS Wellness Clinic. *No photo credit*
MORE LOCAL ALERT
"Before the outbreak, wellness, which is considered preventive medicine, was very new to Thais, but it has become more recognised as people become more aware about their lives and health," said Tanupol Virunhagarun, chief operating officer and director of BDMS Wellness Clinic.
The clinic has seen significant growth from Thais during the outbreak and expects the trend to continue. Widespread internet use, which creates more accessibility to health information, is prompting the younger generation to be more health-conscious and proactive about their well-being.
While the virus panic has made some people afraid to go to hospital, wellness clinics have emerged as an option to keep an eye on health and boost immunity.
Aside from the local market, which accounts for 70% of overall guests, most foreign clients in pre-pandemic times came from the Middle East, followed by countries in Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) and China.
Mr Tanupol said that since the virus sent the number of international tourists to zero, travel bubbles can help bring medical tourists from low-risk countries to Thailand -- a new market opportunity for the clinic.
"Allowing tourists in is still risky, as the country cannot completely contain the spread of virus, but the government should find a way to balance health and safety with economic stability," he said.
The most popular service at the clinic is a comprehensive check-up programme to predict early signs of disease and create tailor-made prevention for each individual.
One of the growth segments during the pandemic is the immunity clinic, including immunity boosting and checking the levels of blood cells that help the body fight viruses and tumors.
The pandemic is also accelerating the clinic's investment in advanced technology to help prevent disease.
The clinic has a strong medical background rooted in the well-known hospital group Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, which operates 49 hospitals nationwide.
He said the long-term plan is to expand BDMS Wellness Clinic branches to other part of the country, starting with the North, East and South next year.
A physician greets a patient in the lobby of the BDMS Wellness Clinic.
RIDE WITH THE TIDE
Mr Tanupol said the Movenpick BDMS Wellness Resort Bangkok has joined the alternative state quarantine (ASQ) programme approved by the Public Health Ministry and the Defence Ministry for providing a 14-day quarantine package for visitors to Thailand.
At present, the 150-room ASQ facility is fully booked until August.
Since the country has gained a reputation for having an effective healthcare system during the pandemic, Mr Tanupol suggested the government seize the opportunity to provide more support and promote unique local health offerings, such as those from One Tambon One Product.
For instance, that state could introduce healthy food such as Southern cuisine, which consisted of herbs full of antioxidants with less fat and sweetness from coconut milk.
New value-added products and services would make each destination in the country outstanding enough to attract more tourists who want to come back to Thailand and get good health in return.
Somchai Soongswang, president of Thailand Privilege Card Co (TPC), the operator of Thailand Elite Card under the supervision of the TAT, said the company is working on a plan to introduce a wellness-related membership package to long-stay tourists in October.
Thailand Elite Card sold 1,894 membership cards and generated 1.1 billion baht revenue from Oct 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.
Mr Somchai said the number of card holders surpassed 10,000 with a total of 10,364 members as of June.
Due to uncertainty about international travel restrictions, the company will count Sept 30 as the first day of every new membership.
The Dental Clinic at the BDMS Wellness Clinic.
Medical check-up services are offered at the BDMS Wellness Clinic.
The lobby of the BDMS Wellness Clinic. *No photo credit*