Medical tourism

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

Let me clarify once more. Medical tourism is not the same as providing emergency medical facilities in tourist areas. Both may serve tourists, but one is accidental and the other is intentional.

As I pointed out in a previous column, we are not ready for medical tourism. This involves providing medical services to people who make an intentional visit to this country to avail of such services.

Outside of dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons serving beauty wants of patients, our doctors are not ready, nor are they inclined to serve medical tourists. We don’t have enough hospital beds for our own patients and our doctors are working long hours attending to local patients as it is.

There was once an attempt by Dr. Alran Bengzon of Medical City to attract medical tourists who want to avail of stem cell treatment for various ailments. I attended a news conference announcing the service that would be provided by a Philippine-born doctor, Sam Bernal, who has specialized in it.

Stem cell treatment is not available in the US where Dr. Bernal was based, so working with Medical City seemed a good idea. I recall that the equipment for it was acquired, and by the time the news conference was called, they already had a number of successful treatments.

But I didn’t hear anything more about it after many years.

We have been hearing about government plans to promote medical tourism. But as one foreign consultant told me, we are ”not ready for medical tourism on a massive scale. You started back in about 2005 with bad advice and went downhill from there.”

We apparently hired a medical tourism association, a group of two lawyers claiming to be experts. Then DOH and DOT in 2009, ”started buying conference stands to sell excess capacity in hotel rooms and hospital beds without having a product at a medical tourism event. Then came other conference organizers in 2010, 2011, 2012, and then another attorney posing as a medical tourism consultant and nothing...”

Even as our efforts failed, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore successfully established a medical tourism sector. In our case, it was reverse medical tourism. The very rich among us go to Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia for medical treatment and even annual check-ups.

The Thai hospital group that was once with Asian Hospital could have helped us launch medical tourism, but they were gone too soon. We may have very good doctors, but the local medical community simply isn’t interested.

Many countries make an effort to develop and promote medical tourism because there is a market. The high cost of treatment in the US makes an overseas trip for medical services a cost effective option.

CNN had an article last month about India’s medical tourism industry that could grow by 200 percent by 2020, hitting $9 billion, according to Ministry of Tourism figures.

India is trying to make it easier for people to come for medical reasons. It is touting advanced facilities, skilled doctors, and low-cost treatment, and also traditional practices such as yoga and Ayurveda.

“India can provide medical and health care of international standards at low costs,” Tourism Minister KJ Alphons said in written response to a query in the Lower House of Parliament, CNN reports.

“India excels in state-of-the-art medical facilities, reputed health care professionals, quality nursing facilities, and traditional healthcare therapies.”

Indeed, an editor in a Manila-based newspaper suffered a stroke in India while on a press tour. They thought she wouldn’t make it, but she did, thanks to the skilled Indian doctors who took care of her.

According to CNN, India ranked third most popular destination for medical tourism, when the industry was worth $3 billion in 2015. The number of foreign tourists going to India on medical visas was nearly 234,000 that year.

By 2017, the number of arrivals more than doubled to 495,056, government figures show. Visa rules have also been changed to encourage applications.

“The e-tourist visa regime has been expanded to include medical visits as well. Medical and medical attendant visas have been introduced to ease the travel process of medical tourists. The maximum duration of stay in India under the e-medical visa is a longer duration of six months,” Alphons said.

I imagine medical tourism requires keeping up with the fast pace of technological advances in healthcare. Local doctors simply do not have the time for serious continuing education beyond usual conventions given their heavy load of patients. And hospitals are reluctant to invest in such innovations as IBM’s Watson for Medicine.

It seems medical tourism isn’t going to happen soon. Maybe, in the future when a new generation of tech savvy doctors come of age, they will be more comfortable with the attitude change that medical tourism demands.

For now, our medical tourism sector will largely be the beauty clinics. But even here, I know of some celebrities who go to Bangkok instead for that.

Emergency resort medicine

Now some good news. There is one resort in the country that is ready to provide emergency medical services to their guests: Balesin Island Resort.

When I visited Balesin last year, I was shown the facilities in its Aegle Wellness Center. A doctor and trained medical staff are on duty 24/7. They are trained for both basic and advanced cardiac life support  (BLS/ACLS).

They have an ECG equipment and a defibrillator. They also have in stock emergency medicines.

Best of all, their Alphaland Aviation is trained to respond immediately for emergency medevacs. Depending on Manila air traffic, a patient can be in Manila in less than an hour.

But that is Bobby Ongpin who thinks of everything. Maybe if they did not prematurely get him out of Tagaytay Highlands, such life saving facilities might have been in place to save the life of a prominent business educator friend of mine and others like him.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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