Apr 1, 2013

Philippines - PHL tourism's new pitch: cheaper surgery

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A dermatology clinic may not be everyone's idea of a perfect holiday destination.

But a growing number of overseas Filipinos and foreigners these days travel to the Philippines for medical treatment to save on money—combining a visit to the doctor with their tropical island experience.

One of them is Gelo (not his real name), a Filipino who migrated to the US and went on a so-called “medical vacation” in Manila to get his acne scars removed.

“The procedure I had was a Fraxel Laser Treatment, which is used to treat acne scars. It took place on May 2011 and again on April 2012,”  he said in an e-mail message to GMA News Online.

Gelo said price was major motivation in getting treatment here instead of the US. 

The procedure Gelo underwent costs $200 (P8,200) in Manila, way below the $400 to $800 (P16,200 to P24,600) he would have paid in the US.

“For that price I can go on vacation to the Philippines and get the treatment done,” Gelo noted. “I also looked at satisfaction reviews from patients both here and there, and found that they were comparably favorable.

“More importantly, that treatment is sometimes performed by nurses, medical assistants, or technicians here [in the US], while it is performed by the actual doctor/dermatologist there,” he added.

An industry in infancy

While many like Gelo travel to the Philippines for medical treatment, the country's revenue share in the world's medical tourism remains trifling compared to other emerging markets like Thailand where services are also nominally inexpensive.

The world's medical tourism industry is projected to rake in $70 billion this year.

The joint public-private association Philippine Medical Tourism Program (PMTP) targets to attract $2 billion in revenues by 2015, according to global health management firm Health Core.

Two years ago, Southeast Asian neighbor Thailand— a rising medical tourism hub—earned $2 billion, mostly by attracting 40 percent of the tourists seeking medical treatment in Asia, according to data from Thailand's Bureau of Investments.

In an interview with GMA News Online, Philippine Medical Association (PMA) president Modesto Llamas surmised that the reason why the country is not attracting as much as it should is the lack of medical tourism infrastructure.

While the country has a large pool of world-class medical professionals, it does not have appropriate medical tourism destinations, he said by phone.

“The overall situation has to be improved. It's not only about hospital facilities or equipment, it's also about amenities,” Llamas noted.

“Sa hospital ba natin may dormitories where the patient or patient's family can live while seeking treatment? Is there a decent cafeteria for them?” he said.

The Philippines does have a medical tourism road map, which should have addressed these gaps.

Drafted in 2011 by the PMTP, the road map sought to increase medical tourism competitiveness by complying with international healthcare requirements and institutionalizing high level patient safety standards.

While the Philippines' medical tourism program appeared to remain in broad strokes, Thailand's went as far as modernizing and institutionalizing research and development for Thai made pharmaceuticals.

Thailand, likewise, granted fiscal and non-tax incentives for import of medical equipment and active ingredients for medicines.

Despite repeated requests, PMTP officials did not grant a request for an interview with GMA News Online regarding updates to the road map.

Banking on people

Still, the government remains bullish on prospects for medical tourism, marketing the country's health professionals as best in the region.

“Nakikita po natin na malakas ang capability natin to position our country as a medical tourism destination,”  Benito Bengzon, Tourism Assisant Secretary for international promotions, said in an interview with GMA News' “News to Go.”

“We are very competitive. First of all our doctors, nurses, medical staff are highly trained and are among the best in the region,” he added.

PMA's Llamas noted, “Our selling point is hospitality, it's always been that. The support staff, mas mababait at mas magalang.”

However, Llamas maintains that more needs to be done in order to fully seize the country's potential in medical tourism, saying that at the end of the day the Philippines can catch up with its Southeast Asian neighbors. 

“Pero kailangan ng support from the government and push from the private sector. Efforts have to be sustained,” he added.


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