The world medical tourism map is changing spatially and economically. This highly advanced and ever-growing industry serves millions of patients every year, with clinics, treatments and healthcare available more cheaply and readily in developing countries than ever before. A clear industry leader is emerging in South East Asia, overtaking countries in America, Africa and Eastern Europe to become the first port of call for many seeking low-cost procedures abroad.

The worldwide medical tourism industry is work an estimated $100Bn (USD) and covers many aspects of health procedure including dentistry, cardiology, cancer treatments, orthopaedics and cosmetic procedures. There is much debate about whether health tourism can be included under the ‘medical tourism’ remit, as an increasingly lucrative market in spas, natural remedies and wellbeing treatments is also emerging. This is particularly true for South East Asian countries, whose warm climate and natural resources have long been used to great effect in treating stress-related conditions and general wellbeing needs. How such ‘medical tourists’ are charted is also emerging as a contentious issues, with definitions of a ‘medical tourist’ changing according to the country in which they are situated; reason for visiting; time spent in the area; and if a surgical procedure is carried out.

Yet, tourism as an already major economic contributor to South East Asia is emerging as an obvious driver in the growth of medical tourism currently being experienced by the region, with is currently worth an estimated $8.5Bn (USD). Lower cost airline travel as well as ease of access to other Asian tourist destinations has undoubtedly contributed to the influx of patients seeking healthcare solutions in the area. This is particularly true of Thailand, whose long-established tourist credentials give it an edge over medical tourism rivals such as Singapore and South Korea. Yet, Malaysia is catching up with their rivals in terms of healthcare industry growth, offering low-cost medical care in an increasingly more inviting environment.Medical tourism industry

Malayisa reported a 29.3% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in patient arrivals since 2013. An improvement in available medical technology, increasingly more advanced tourism infrastructure and better marketing techniques such as innovative use of social media ensure the Malaysian health tourism industry is increasingly more appealing to those seeking treatment abroad. The Thai government too are overtaking rivals such as Singapore in their drive to fund marketing campaigns aimed at medical tourism; the gap in quality of care between the two countries has also narrowed in recent years.

Indeed, the 25% decline in medical tourist revenue generated by Singapore between 2012 ($1110Mn USD) and 2013 ($832Mn USD) is creating ample space for other South East Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia to exploit this ever-growing industry. Ease of access in both healthcare and tourism due to legal restructuring by the ASEAN Economic Community combined with the high cost of medical treatment in places such as the USA is increasing the demand in some of South East Asia’s biggest private hospitals.

It remains to be seen whether other emerging countries in the region such as South Korea and the Phillipines exploit this market advantage effectively. Thailand and Malaysia are applying promotional tactics effectively to counter this potential threat to their standing as a top healthcare destination, whilst moving the map of medical tourism away from its traditional layout.

For more information on the global medical tourism industry, see the latest reports: Medical Tourism Industry