Thailand's increasing popularity as a destination for medical treatment isn't a phenomenon that's arisen by accident or overnight, but is part of a long-term government strategy in cooperation with private hospitals to establish the country as the 'health tourism hub of Asia'. Launched in 2004, this five-year strategy is jointly spearheaded by the Ministries of Public Health and Commerce, and extends beyond medical treatment, aiming to also establish the country as a world leader in the supply of health care services, such as spas, traditional Thai massage, and therapeutic and healing Thai herbal products.
So far, in respect of medical tourism, the aggressive marketing drive seems to be paying dividends. Once upon a time, the efficiency and professionalism of Thailand's medical services were secrets confined mostly to the country's contingent of foreign expatriates and employees of international organisations or companies. Nowadays things have changed markedly, with the number of tourists who travel here specifically to take advantage of the country's superior medical services rocketing year-on-year. In 2004, 600,000 foreign patients - expatriates and 'visiting patients' - had medical treatment here, generating just shy of 20 billion baht of revenue for the country. According to a Ministry of Public Health forecast, this figure is expected to grow by 66% in 2006 with around one million foreign patients generating around 27 billion baht of revenue. And by 2008, revenue from medical tourism alone is expected to reach a staggering 40 billion baht.
One area of concern, voiced by some in Thailand, is that such rampant growth in the health tourism sector may be at the expense of the quality of health care services available for Thais. However, the Ministry of Public Health has made it clear that the drive on medical tourism focuses purely on converting excess capacity in the private hospital sector into national assets, and will not divert resources away from the general population. However, and despite criticism, it seems the government and private hospitals will stop at nothing to win business from all corners of the globe. Health tourism in Thailand, with its first-world medical care at third-world prices, is here to stay.