Medical tourism holds great potential

Compared with other more established Asian medical-travel industries such as Singapore and Thailand, both of which reach billions of U.S. dollars in revenue annually, Taiwan’s medical tourism is only in its infancy, even though the government has repeatedly pledged to develop the industry.

According to statistics provided by the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research (CIER), the total revenue from tourists who came exclusively for Taiwan’s medical services was only around NT$636 million in 2009.

The income from medical tourism constitutes less than one percent of total revenues for all medical institutions in the nation, said the CIER.

Also, the ruling administration had big ambitions when it first came up with the idea in 2007 of promoting medical travel.

They set a goal of attracting more than 100,000 foreign visitors on medical-related tours to Taiwan by the year 2009.

 But the truth is, only around 10,000 foreign visitors came to Taiwan for medical-travel, said Hong Tzu-ren, general manager of Shih Kong Medical Club.

Reasons For Trailing Behind

There are many reasons why Taiwan trails far behind global competition for business. For one thing, the Taiwan Task Force for Medical Travel (TTFMT), a government-backed organization to integrate private and official units as well as tourism resources to fund medical care for foreign patients, only receives an annual budget of NT$1.5 million to promote the huge project, said Wu Ming-yen, secretary-general of the TTFMT.

The money couldn’t even buy us a commercial in the airport,” Wu said, adding that Singapore spent more than US$100 million in 2000 alone in order to promote its medical tourism internationally.

Moreover, just when Japan’s government is about to grant a six-month medical visa for foreigners who visit for medical reason starting January 2011, most Chinese tourists, the largest source of medical tourism to Taiwan, are here under the false pretense of business visas, since the government hasn’t come up with a solid method to facilitate foreigners’ trips to the nation, said Hong.

Another major reason that could explain why Taiwan’s government hesitates on the promotion of medical tourism is that many people are afraid that these international visitors could be sharing Taiwan’s national health insurance (NHI) resources just when the nation’s health system is facing a huge deficit.

In order to solve the problem and ease public concern over the possible loss of medical resources, Taiwan’s government is looking for a solution to better differentiate the medical resources that will be used.

Building Up Special Medical Areas

A possible solution proposed by local experts is to set up a special medical area at the Taoyuan Aerotropolis, a huge project to be built around Taoyuan International Airport to attract foreign investment, which will be completed in a decade.

“The special area could be joined by hospitals and medical facilities that are equipped with cutting-edge technology and first-rate medical staff,” said Wu, adding that it is expected to appeal to foreigners who visit Taiwan for medication.

The government can levy taxes on the highly-lucrative special medical area that can be later used to solve the financial problem of the NHI system, he noted.

 Wu disclosed that his task force is currently making up drafts regarding the special medical areas which are expected to be built not only in Taoyuan but in other major cities in central and southern Taiwan.

There are, of course, concerns over whether the proposal is workable since the government would first have to amend the current law on medical personnel working in these special medical areas, said Hong of the Shih Kong Medical Club.

Susie Lin, an international patient coordinator of the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital (CGMH)’s International Service Center, which is one of Taiwan’s leading medical facilities with international fame, also cast doubt on whether medical institutions in these areas could provide all-around health care to visiting patients.

Hong, whose medical club makes as much as NT$20 million each year from Chinese tourists seeking medical services, suggested that the government should focus much more effort on making the brand name of Taiwan known internationally for its world-renowned medical and health care industry.

Besides urging the ruling administration to grant medical visas to visiting foreigners, like the Japanese government is planning to do to appeal to high-end Chinese tourists, Hong also noted that a cross-ministry ad hoc committee should be established to replace the TTFMT, to serve as a platform to promote medical tourism.

By Joseph Yeh
The China Post

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