September 9, 2002
The Perfect Thai Vacation: Sun, Sea and Surgery
By SETH MYDANS
BANGKOK, Sept. 3 - Thailand, the land of temples, floating markets and elephant
rides, has begun promoting a new attraction for tourists - root canals.
Having put just about everything else it has on the market for foreign visitors, Thailand
has turned to what it calls medical tourism, offering services that range from dental care
to cancer treatments.
The attractions for a visitor are top-quality medical care, extremely low cost and a side
trip to the beach.
"We thought, listen, we have really excellent medical facilities here and we have
excellent holidays," said Teerapol Chotichanapibal, director of Royal Orchid Holidays.
"If you can come and get a clean bill of health and then go and enjoy your holiday, what
could be better?"
So, in Royal Orchid's glossy "Discover Thailand" brochure, a traveler can choose from
options that include a performance of classical dance, a visit to the River Kwai, a Thai
cooking class or a seven-hour "Comprehensive Health Examination for Women or
The key to this new promotion is the high level of medical care that has emerged here
in the past decade or two. The top private hospitals in Bangkok boast foreign-trained
and certified doctors and modern medical equipment. They offer an inexpensive
alternative to visitors who may need procedures not covered by health insurance or who
live in countries with long waiting lists for national health care.
"They'll come for hip replacement or knee replacement or cataracts and, yup, while
they're here they'll take a vacation," said Ruben Toral, director of international
programs at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok. "They get their cosmetic surgery or
their dental work and, boom, they're off to the beach."
Katty Anderson, of Carmel, Calif., opted for a physical exam while on a visit to
Thailand and says, "I tell the story of my experience to everyone, which I thought was
fabulous, the efficiency and the speed. What happened to me was just the absolute
opposite to anything that could happen in the United States. I came out saying, you see,
it can be done."
When she tells people she had medical care in Thailand, she says, "They roll their eyes
up in their heads and say, `I can imagine.' And I say, `No, you can't.' "
Thailand made its name as a medical destination in the 1970's with one of its
specialties, sex-change operations, known more formally as gender reassignment
surgery, or G.R.S.
On its Web site, Bumrungrad describes the procedures it offers, then adds: "Many
Bangkok G.R.S. Center patients extend their visits to include the many sites of
Thailand including Bangkok, the northern hilltribe areas of Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai and
the beautiful southern islands of Phuket and Koh Samui."
Or it is possible to go directly to Phuket, one of Thailand's premier beach resorts, and
check in to the Phuket International Hospital, which advertises, "Bright sun, blue sea,
Price is also an attraction. It is still possible save money in Asia on ready-made suits or
gemstones, but some of the best bargains now seem to be things like open-heart
surgery, which goes for about $7,000 at Bumrungrad, rather than the tens of thousands
of dollars it might cost in the United States. An outpatient consultation is generally less
than $10. A complete cardiac examination, including a full range of tests, costs about
$100. The average hospital bed costs $50 a night.
The hospitals' efficiency and personal attention also come as a culture shock to many
"Someone dressed in a beautiful Armani suit with little high-heeled shoes simply took
me around from appointment to appointment and they immediately did all these tests,
one after another," Mrs. Anderson said. "I went down and had lunch at the Starbucks in
the lobby of the hospital, came back up and the doctor had on his desk the most
beautiful file, all bound with tabs and everything, with all the results of the tests that
they had done."
"Something like that, as you know, is impossible in America," she added. "I mean, it's
Curtis J. Schroeder, an American who is Bumrungrad's chief executive officer, said
225,000 foreigners visited the hospital last year, about half of whom live in Thailand.
Americans made up 29,000 of the outpatients and more than 30,000 of the inpatients,
With its 554 beds, air of luxury and aggressive marketing, Bumrungrad now dominates
Thailand's medical tourism industry and has almost single-handedly shifted the
regional hub for medical care from Singapore.
Though two-thirds of its patients are Thais, the hospital caters to foreigners with a
concierge service that handles such things as airport transportation, bank transactions,
visas and airline tickets.
Since Sept. 11, Mr. Schroeder said, there has been a flood of Middle Eastern patients
who now avoid the United States for fear of discrimination. In response, the hospital
has hired extra Arabic interpreters, stocked up on Muslim prayer rugs and opened a
kitchen serving religiously acceptable halal food.
"It looks like Mecca downstairs," Mr. Schroeder said.
Bumrungrad has made a deliberate effort not to look or smell like a hospital, softening
its decor and filtering its air. Its gigantic, carpeted lobby with deep sofas, potted trees
and a blonde-wood reception desk has the look of an expensive hotel.
As much as anything, it is the Starbucks coffee shop that draws comment, along with
the McDonald's, the Au Bon Pain, the Japanese restaurant and the mezzanine food
court. A bed-ridden patient can order from any of these outlets through room service.
Elevators carry portraits of a guest chef each month who visits to prepare the hospital's
All of this helps patients and their families to feel safe and comfortable, Mr. Schroeder
said. But it is also great for the tourist brochures.
Mr. Schroeder, who was previously the administrator of USC University Hospital in Los
Angeles, has been an enthusiasic booster of Thailand's medical tourism.
"We looked at finding a way to do frequent-flier miles, but we can't figure out a way to
calculate them," Mr. Schroeder said, perhaps joking. "If you have a cholecystectomy,
how many miles do you get?"
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