By Trista di Genova
The Wild East
Medical tourism in Taiwan doesn’t seem to be taking off as well as expected. Initial government efforts began with 2004’s ‘Health Tourism Guidance Task Force in Taiwan,’ funded by NT$10.5 billion (US$34 million) in July 2007 to market, develop and promote the island’s medical services abroad. The Executive Yuan projected medical tourism would draw 100,000 patients in three years and create about 3,500 job opportunities.
However, the much-touted initiative’s yields are almost zero, according to medical travel industry insiders, and only a small number of Mainland Chinese patients have come to Taiwan for medical services since the project was launched.
Taiwan lags far behind competitors such as Thailand and Korea, for example; or Singapore, which had over 400,000 foreign patients visiting in 2005 for US$1.5 billion in medical treatment; or India, projected by Taiwan’s CEPD to bring in as much as US$2 billion by 2012. Taiwan could have been one of several Asian countries that felt a post-911 pick-me-up in medical tourism, when it became much harder to get visas to take advantage of treatment in the US.
Fortunately, Taiwan’s medical expertise in the fields of liver disease treatment, plastic surgery and dentistry is top-notch, and the island provides quality health care, comparable to the U.S. and Europe, at a fair price. For locals, a trip to any clinic or hospital in Taiwan costs NT$150 (US$5) (consultation with a Chinese medicine practitioner would cost only slightly more than this, maybe US$10), and that includes the medicine for 5 days. For foreigners, when visiting a hospital — without any health insurance coverage at all – one can still get inexpensive, fairly state-of-the-art care with maybe nothing but a passport; a health exam, complete with x-rays is only about US$30.
The doctors usually speak English fairly fluently –- often they’ve done their residencies in the United States. At a clinic in Banciao, Taipei County, the ear doctor had completed his residency at Harvard University. Without insurance, the consultation still only cost NT$400, about US$12, only twice as much as with an insurance card.
Tellingly, an OB/GYN doctor at WanFang Hospital in Taipei County, said that whenever he visits the States, “I always hope I don’t get sick and have to go to a hospital,” because of the astronomical costs.
At the dentist — where dentistry records islandwide are all kept in English and equipment is surprisingly advanced — the cost is by service: fillings are NT$1,000, (US$30) pulling a tooth NT$1,500, (US$50) gold caps about NT$8,000, (US$280) and so on. Bridgework is apparently a fraction of what it would be in the U.S.
So what’s the problem? Is Taiwan too remote and unknown a location from the Americas, with a US$1000 ticket and a 16-hour flight? Maybe, but most likely, there are a few factors at play here.
The CEPD notes that the few ‘medical tourists’ coming are from the Mainland, and suggested that in order to accommodate foreign patients Taiwan must cultivate more people in the medical service industry with foreign language ability. The opening of direct flights from Taiwan to China makes the trip more convenient for Mainlanders.
Paperwork is also an obstacle. ‘Medical visas’ are now in available for up to 6 months, but the paperwork for the visa sounds daunting. MOFA spokesman David Wang (王建業) said, “The applicant must present documents such as medical history, past correspondence with the doctors, doctor’s recommendations or diagnoses in order to be granted the visa.”
Taiwan’s medical industry must also learn how to package itself in a more attractive way to lure more patients from other countries, the CEPD stressed.
BiotechEast, a website for medical industry news and analysis, points out that “Realistically, with the island’s extensive and modern medical resources, the list should be longer than [the CEPD’s list of liver disease treatment, dentistry, facial reconstruction, Chinese medicine and health checkups]. There’s no reason why cosmetic surgery, cardiovascular surgery, orthopedic procedures and cancer treatment, to name just a few areas where Taiwan has world-class capabilities, can’t be added.”
Just how Taiwan can bite off a bigger piece of the international medical tourist market, a business estimated to be worth between US$40 to US$60 billion annually, remains to be addressed.