Business / healthcare

Health tourism can be a dose of good medicine

By Yang Wanli and Liu Zhihua (China Daily) Updated: 2012-09-24 08:02

Modern care and a bit of shopping is just what the doctor ordered, Yang Wanli and Liu Zhihua report.

Health tourism can be a dose of good medicine

An increasing number of wealthy Chinese are flying overseas, but not to shop for luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada. These people are looking for something not found on department store shelves. They are seeking beautiful faces, stronger hearts, clearer eyes or just a better understanding of their health.

Liu Yuan, a 31-year-old sales manager at an advertising company in Beijing, had laser eye surgery earlier this year. She was impressed with the care and the skill of surgeons at the private clinic she attended in Singapore.

"The long waiting time at public hospitals in China is so embarrassing and you can't choose the surgeon you want. And laser eye surgery in Singapore has a good reputation," Liu said.

The return flight cost her 5,000 yuan ($793) and she also had the opportunity to shop in Singapore. "It's a double-gain trip," Liu said.

She is one of the thousands of Chinese residents who choose to venture abroad for medical treatment. With the rising affluence and mobility of the country's emerging middle class, there's been a significant increase in the numbers of Chinese traveling overseas as medical tourists in the past decade.

Around 60,000 Chinese people travel abroad annually for healthcare services, especially for anti-aging therapy, cancer screening, to give birth and for treatment of chronic diseases, according to Yang Jian, CEO of the Shanghai Medical Tourism Products and Promotion Platform.

In January 2008, Shao Hui learned that his sister had been diagnosed with a 5 millimeter diameter tumor in her lung.

The diagnosis came from a hospital in Japan, which has some of the best cancer-screening technology in the world. Just a few months later, the same hospital told the 36-year-old businessman that he had cancerous growth in his stomach.

The results were beyond Shao's expectations. "We have annual health checks at one of the best hospitals in Beijing and they didn't reveal any problems," he said.

His sister decided to act on the suggestion of the Japanese physicians and have the tumor excised, but not to undergo any other treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy. The Japanese doctors also guaranteed that the cancer would not reappear.

"I talked with some doctors in Beijing and they were astonished. It's highly unlikely that such a small tumor could be detected in a hospital in China, and the doctors would never promise that there was no chance of a recurrence," said Shao.

Shao himself underwent a gastroscopy, an examination of the stomach and alimentary canal, in Japan. The treatment left a good impression on him. The procedure, usually performed through the mouth in China, is performed nasally in Japan, significantly reducing patient discomfort.

Shao and his sister were screened as part of a trial for his company, L'Avion, a travel agency that specializes in private medical tourism. Two years after the company was founded, Shao's family traveled to Japan for medical checkups in 2008. He later included the tour in the company's routes because of the treatment he had received.

Clients, most of whom are entrepreneurs aged from 40 to 50, pay thousands of yuan for overseas consultations and hundreds of thousands for surgery. At the high end, the service can include interpreters, tour guides, a first-class air ticket, a private driver and specially prepared Chinese or local cuisine. The company's most popular routes are anti-aging treatment in Switzerland and cancer screening in Japan.

Last year, the number of individuals in the Asia-Pacific region with more than $1 million at their disposal rose 1.6 percent to 3.37 million, according to the seventh Asia-Pacific Wealth report compiled by the consultancy Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management. Moreover, 17 percent of Asia's millionaires are located in China.

"Some, but still very few, of those wealthy people are aware of the importance of disease prevention. We are trying to promote the idea of enhancing the quality of life, rather than simply treating disease," said Shao.

Sheep serum therapy

Xiao Bo is familiar with medical treatment overseas. The 45-year-old from Jilin province in Northeast China works in international trade and spends most of the time in Beijing. A decade ago she started to pay regular healthcare trips to foreign countries, including the United States, Japan, Germany and Switzerland, seeking better technology and services than those provided in China.

Earlier this year, she paid 380,000 yuan for a trip to the Clinique Biotonus Bon Port in Geneva, Switzerland, where Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, was treated in 1992. The clinic mainly provides treatment for intense fatigue, burnout and problems linked with aging.

The purpose of Xiao's trip was sheep placenta treatment, which she first had two years ago. The treatment is typically used to produce clear and healthy skin, free of wrinkles and blemishes. "Just compare the photos before and after the therapy, you can see a more youthful appearance and I feel I have more energy. The injection of serum has also boosted my immune system and I've been almost illness-free for the past two years," she said

Chinese patients need to be better informed about the impact of lifestyle. They need to learn the value of good nutrition and exercise and to be aware of the importance of preventative medicine, said Mara Bianchi, assistant director at the clinic.

She said that the clinic has received more Chinese patients since 2006, when it started its cooperation with L'Avion. The influx of Chinese patients has brought changes to the clinic. Most of the physicians and nurses can speak at least two or three sentences in Mandarin and the menu now includes Chinese favorites such as porridge and pickled cabbage.

Growing demand

An aging population and rising incomes have increased the demand for medical and healthcare products and services throughout China. According to the Ministry of Health, mainlanders aged 60 or older accounted for 13.3 percent of the population in 2010, an increase on the 10.3 percent recorded 10 years ago.

"It is understandable that people choose to get medical treatment overseas. Generally speaking, Western countries are better off than us in terms of economics, medical technologies, and care services," said Liu Zhongjun, director of the Orthopedics Department of Peking University No 3 Hospital in Beijing.

For the wealthy, receiving treatment overseas may provide mental relief, if the medical care, services and hospital environment are taken into consideration. However in Liu's opinion, the price of treatment is too high - as much as a dozen times more expensive than in China - and far beyond the reach of the average person, said Liu.

"If some people think that overseas doctors have better skills than their Chinese counterparts, they are wrong," he said. "Doctors in the larger hospitals not only have up-to-date skills, facilities and equipment, but also a broader view of individual cases than their counterparts overseas."

"I will not go abroad for treatment if I become ill," he added.

New wealth in Asia

Medical tourism has become a boom industry in the past decade, not only in China, but the whole of Asia, mainly because of the emergence of new wealth in the region.

Industry experts predict that medical tourism in Asia will grow at a rate of 15 to 20 percent a year, according to reports from Reuters. Meanwhile, the Medscape News website predicts that the practice could generate $4.4 billion in the region this year.

That raises the question of whether competition from foreign providers might help to lower the cost of private medical treatment in China, but Deng Kaishu, vice-president of the Chinese Medical Doctor Association, said that's unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future because the number of patients is too small to make a difference.

"But the value of treatment for foreigners in China will inject new vitality into the domestic medical system," he said. "Traditional Chinese Medicine has great influence on patients overseas and we should better promote these services to attract them," he said.

Some medical service companies in China are making efforts to keep patients at home. Ciming Health Checkup Group, a leading private healthcare agency in China, set up the Oasis International Wellness Club in Beijing in mid-2011.

Membership services include free, extensive health checkups, tailored health management guidance, private doctors and overseas medical tourism services. Its clients, currently numbering around 50, are all Chinese and pay at least 120,000 yuan for a year's membership and around 3 million yuan for life membership.

Xu Qiong, a publicity officer for the group, says only 10 percent of clients aged between 35 and 55 have conditions that require surgery. "Most have non-life-threatening conditions and traditional Chinese medical treatment will always be the first choice. Thus, high-end medical services in China still have great potential," he said.

Tang Yue contributed to the story.

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