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Can Medical Tourism Boost the Maui Economy?

November 5, 2011 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Maui’s residents are truly blessed to live on a beautiful island.

The world agrees: For the 17th year, Maui Island was voted by Conde Nast Traveler magazine readership as the “Best Island in the World”. Also, Maui was voted “Best U.S. Island” for 21 glorious times.

Other destinations cannot compete on natural beauty as the leading factor to attract high-spending visitors. However, other cities or regions are not sitting still. One area that has emerged as a revenues-booster and jobs creator is medical tourism.

For example, one famous hospital that attracts patients from Western Europe, Middle East, North America, and the nouveau riche of Vietnam, Mainland China, India – over 200 countries -- is in Bangkok, Thailand. Bumrungrad International is an internationally accredited, multi-specialty hospital. After its launch 30 years ago, it is now the largest private hospital in Southeast Asia with over 500 beds and 30 specialty centers (and serviced apartments connected to the hospital). Bumrungrad offers diagnostic, therapeutic and intensive care facilities in a one-stop medical center, and now serves over a million patients annually, nearly half non-Thai citizens.

Having toured Bumrungrad, I can confirm that I had no problems communicating in English with the front office, nurses, and doctors. The special draw of hospitals like Bumrungrad is that a major operation in the U.S. like a liver transplant or other surgical procedures will cost much, much less.

My Japanese friends have flown twice to Thailand, paid for implants and crowns, and enjoyed several days accommodations/meals at a 5-star Phuket beach-front hotel – and the total price was still less than having identical treatment in Tokyo. (You start to get the picture for the Maui economy – throw in a rehabilitation vacation with family members, and this visit boosts revenues for hotels, restaurants, airlines.)

On the other side of the Pacific, Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, Washington State, is a mirror image of Bumrungrad. It offers a hotel adjacent to the hospital where family members can stay, easy access to interpreters, even special food (Thai peanut salad is on the hospital menu). This hospital has specialties including cancer, digestive issues, and cardiology. Aside from Americans, Virginia Mason Hospital attracts Latin American, South Korean, and Canadian patients – for these individuals, the draw is an all-in-one center that relieves the stress for the entire family.

Affluence, lack of medical options in one’s own country, no waiting lines, access to a vacation afterwards for mental/physical healing – these are all factors for traveling half-way across the world for medical treatment.

Although U.S. medical centers have top staff and facilities, there has been a rise of Americans leaving the U.S. for medical treatment, from crossing the border into Mexico for dental work or knee surgery at Raffles Hospital in Singapore or even procedures at hospitals in India, believe it or not.

Can Maui fulfill a “niche” in medical tourism? Perhaps sports medicine? Addiction problems? Isn’t Maui a location for health and wellness – all those people running in Wailea, even along the cane fields to Kahuk\lui? Or even cosmetic surgery? (Some Southeast Asian and Brazilian hospitals have specialties for the eternal “Fountain of Youth” surgical procedures, and attract high-paying crowd for excellent revenue streams.)

World-class medical centers also benefit the local population, as Bumrungrad International Hospital’s nearly half-million international patients pay higher rates and thereby subsidize the high-tech equipment costs and U.S./European-trained physicians’ salaries to provide medical care to local Thai patients (likewise, with the growth of a Maui-based world-class medical center, Mauians can have access to a wider range of treatment and surgical procedures rather than traveling out of Maui).

Yet developing a top medical center for international patients anywhere in the world is not a simple “Fields of Dreams” metaphor of building a hospital in the cornfields and waiting for the patients to stream in. Bumrungrad has marketing offices in over 15 cities around the globe; the innovative hospital has created an extensive “infrastructure” for making non-Thai patients and their families feel “at home”, in the heart of Bangkok (even the easy-to-get Thailand visas for Mainland Chinese tourists work to the advantage of Bangkok hospitals' marketing).

Simply, Maui cannot compete on such large scale, since the investment is monumental in both facilities and qualified staff. Yet the combination of Maui as “Best Island in the World” plus a smaller “niche specialty” world-class medical center and a unique Maui location for the facility, perhaps adjacent/synergistic to a beach-front 5-star hotel, shall result in the hiring of qualified Maui (multi-lingual) nurses, lab technicians, doctors, staff – and launch a new “medical tourism” economic sector for Maui.

 
 

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