By Pepper Marcelo
Amidst the global recession, medical tourism is one of the few bright spots in the gloomy Philippine economic landscape. Government officials are hoping the Medical Tourism sector will help alleviate poor investment climate and offset the depressed overseas employment market that has provided jobs to millions of Filipinos.
The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions defines medical tourism as the process of leaving home for treatments and care abroad.
Government officials and industry leaders expect this phenomenon to register “explosive growth” in the country in the next few years. They base their optimism on two factors: first, the safety and quality of care in many offshore settings like the Philippines is no longer an issue; and second, rising health care costs in western developed countries. Increasing numbers of western patients have realized that the same medical care available in countries like the United Sates could be had in other countries for a fraction of the cost.
In 2007 alone, some 750,000 Americans traveled abroad and spent $2.1 billion for medical care. By 2017, more than 15 million Americans will seek medical services in other countries and spend between $30 billion and $79 billion.
By next year, global medical tourism is projected to be worth $100 billion, up from $60 billion in 2007.
Since 2006, the Department of Tourism (DOT), in conjunction with the Department of Health (DOH), has been heavily promoting the country as Asia’s premier medical and wellness hub.
“Going to the hospital is very expensive. If you’re in a medical crisis, you will start looking at places that offer quality service for your money,” DOT Undersecretary Cynthia Carrion tells Planet Philippines in an interview. Carrion is in charge of Sports Tourism and Wellness.
The main attraction for foreigners to come to the Philippines is affordability of quality medical care in the country, which is only a fraction of what foreigners would pay in their home countries.
“The price comparison is really big. Cheap is not the word. It’s just that we do good value for the money,” says Carrion.
For example a rhinoplasty, or noselift, that would cost $8,000 in the US would only be about $1,200 in the Philippines.
“People are realizing now that it’s very safe and very good quality. Sometimes it’s one-eighth the cost,” adds Megan Collins, advisor and consultant to the Office of the Undersecretary for Sports Tourism and Wellness.
Another factor for the country is the competence and compassion of Philippine medical practitioners. We have many doctors who have received the best medical training at home and abroad, while our nurses and caregivers are renowned and in-demand worldwide for their caring and friendly attitude.
A concept that Medical Tourism has created which provides another added enticement to visitors is the “one-stop shop” model. After an operation or medical service, the patient can proceed to enjoy the local leisure amenities such as beaches, spas and resorts.
Carrion empathizes, however, that servicing medical needs is the first priority. “I never even talk about the beaches,” she says. “It’s an added attraction. They come here first because of our technology, second our doctors, third our wonderful nurses.”
Adds Collins: “People when they come here, they do cosmetic surgery, then come back for more complex healthcare events, or if they come for a complex healthcare event, they return for tourism, so it’s a win-win.”
Collins, a Canadian, came to the Philippines several years ago on vacation. While here, she was stricken with appendicitis and hospitalized. She was very impressed by the process and care of the doctors and nurses that helped in her recovery.
“They not only did a superb job on my medical needs, but took care of my emotional needs,” she says. She is currently helping the DOT to promote the Philippines and providing testimony all over the world.
Another added attraction is the proliferation of spas and wellness centers. Many establishments are fast cropping up to give foreign clients the best in relaxation therapy, with services such as the popular traditional massage, hilot, and local curative herbs offering a safe medical alternative.
“We are the only country in Asia that has a Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act,” says Carrion. “We’re allowed to work on alternative medicine.”
The DOT is also pushing to make the Philippines a retirement haven. There are over 150 million people of retirement age all over the world. The high cost of living in their home countries is driving them to move to developing countries where the cost of living is significantly cheaper. As of February 2008, the Philippines has attracted around 17,000 retirees. But that number represents just a tip of the iceberg.
“In two to four years, 17 million Americans will be retiring in the US,” says carrion. “This is the time for Filipinos to invest in retirement homes. We could be doing so well.”
Since its official launch, the Medical Tourism industry has earned more than $350 million.
Statistics show a 10 percent increase in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the period last year. This is attributed to the 200,000 documented tourists that have sought medical services here from January to March. By the end of 2009, that number is estimated to reach 600,000.
Each medical and wellness tourist that comes to the Philippines spends approximately $3,500 during his or her stay. Thus, the expected 600,000 visitors would spend around $2.1 billion.
Carrion estimates that by 2012, the Medical Tourism industry will earn $3 billion, surpassing the early projection of $1 billion. “The worse the economic crisis is abroad, the better for this industry,” adds Collins.
A major deterrent in the attainment of DOT’s goal is the growing competition among neighboring Asian countries, primarily Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. Carrion laments that some of these countries spread gross misinformation about the Philippines to gain an advantage.
“In Singapore, they announced that we only had 1,200 patients come in. I was shocked. Somebody is trying to put us down, especially Singapore. They’re saying the Philippines should have nothing to do with Medical Tourism, they should send nurses all over the world. That’s not correct. They’re afraid of us,” says Carrion.
The best way to counter that, she says, is to make the Philippines’ presence felt. Thus, the DOT is spending millions to send Carrion, Collins and other officials to medical trade shows all over the world to spread awareness and showcase what the country can offer.
During the 2008 First Annual World Medical Tourism and Global Health Congress in San Francisco, Carrion confronted Alex Piper, President of One World Global Healthcare Solutions, who during his speech omitted the Philippines as one of the Asian countries offering Medical Tourism.
“I got mad at him. I told him he was missing the most important country,” she says. “He went to my presentation, saw what the Philippines could offer, and he was surprised. From then on, he mentioned us.”
Another obstacle could possibly be the 2010 presidential elections, wherein the new administration’s prioritizes might shift to other economic pursuits. Despite the earnings Medical Tourism has attained, Carrion is apprehensive about its future. “Who knows, [newly-elected government officials] might not want to touch Medical Tourism,” she says. “Sometimes they don’t understand. That would be painful for the Philippines. We have to tell them to continue.”
Carrion stresses that Medical Tourism is not only for foreigners. She is appealing to Filipinos abroad to come home for their healthcare needs. “I’m begging on bended knees to make them realize that their country is number one in Medical Tourism. We have good doctors, good system, good technologies, and you save a lot of money. We’re not a Third World country.”