Filipino competence and innate hospitality, and a growing gap between supply and demand in healthcare systems abroad, contribute to making the Philippines a preferred medical destination for more than just cosmetic procedures

Medical travel could be the Philippines’ next economic driver. In a recent press conference for the October 2010 International Summit on Medical Travel, Wellness and Retirement (IMWELL Summit), world experts from the hospitality, healthcare, travel and wellness industries discussed how to make the Philippines the next preferred medical travel destination in Asia.

Medical travel has grown extensively over the years, with neighboring Asian countries like Thailand, India and Singapore all working hard at getting a piece of the pie. According to the International Trade Commission of Geneva, medical travel today is estimated to be at the range of $40 to $60 billion and is growing annually at a rate of 20 per cent that by the year 2013, it is predicted to be a $188 billion global business.

Clearly, someone’s pain is someone else’s gain. In the United States alone, there are over 50 million uninsured Americans and a large number of underinsured, and with U.S. healthcare insurance costs skyrocketing at a higher rate than overall inflation, more and more employers are finding it difficult to provide their employees with adequate healthcare coverage. It is no surprise then that Americans have turned to overseas providers when it comes to addressing their healthcare needs.

A Global Demand for High-quality Care

A marked reduction in new physicians entering the U.S. healthcare system and a growing aging population increases the gap between U.S. healthcare’s supply and demand. “The United States accounts for $1.7 trillion of the $3.3 trillion spent annually for healthcare worldwide,” says Dr. Sanjiv Malik, Honorary Chairman of the IMWELL Summit. “That’s a little over 50 per cent that they’re spending on medical travel, yet a statement from the World Health Organization says that they rank only 37th when it comes to quality of healthcare.

“Europe and Canada also have their own set of challenges,” discloses Dr. Malik. “There is an increasing life expectancy and aging population and their public healthcare infrastructure is unable to cope with the number of patients. The average waiting time in England for a knee replacement is around 16 to 18 months. Developing countries like the SAARC, Micronesia region, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and parts of Africa and Latin America have their share of challenges, too. They have a shortage of healthcare workers, as well as not having the facilities for advanced medical care.”

This is where countries like India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines come in. Filipinos, in particular, are known for their unique brand of care, compassion and sensitivity when it comes to dealing with patients. Says Dr. Malik: “It’s not just the quality of treatment, which, believe me, is excellent. What the Philippines and we Asians are known for is the quality of care. We treat human beings as human beings, and not as a commodity. There is huge potential in projecting ourselves as quality healthcare providers.”

Medical Tourism in the Country

The Philippines, while having had foreign patients for more than three decades now, only launched medical tourism recently under the initiative of Secretary Ace Durano of the Department of Tourism (DOT). Medical tourism continues to grow, with the number of patients and clients rising from 60,000 foreign patients in 2007 to about 100,000 foreign patients in 2008 and gross revenues estimated to be at $350 million since the program was launched in 2006.

In light of this booming phenomenon, the DOT expects the Philippines to have an influx of 1 million patients by 2015, generating a total of $3 billion from the global medical tourism industry, with 200,000 foreign patients arriving annually. “The Philippines is well-positioned to take advantage of this sunrise industry,” relates DOT Undersecretary Cynthia Carrion. “The country has all the ingredients to be the hub for medical tourism. We have a large pool of very competent healthcare professionals with excellent English communication skills. There’s the innate hospitality and optimism of the Filipino people, as well as the country’s pleasant, tropical weather. Furthermore, the  Philippines boasts of reasonably priced healthcare services and a favorable business environment.”

Of course, medical tourism in the country isn’t without its share of hits and misses. While the country’s hospitals are steadily gaining international accreditation—the Medical City in Pasig, Chong Hua Hospital in Cebu, and St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City are all accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI), a leading international accreditation body—foreigners still question the brand of the country, with our unstable political environment, as well as the recent killings in Maguindanao. This was also the case when medical tourism started in India, says Dr. Malik: “We had excellent hospitals and doctors but foreign patients were wary about getting their treatments as India was plagued by terrorism. There were also issues with the tourism industry not integrating well with the healthcare industry. We’ve learned that when a patient makes a decision, it’s not just about hospitals. He also decides on the brand of the country.”

It is with this intent that the DOT initiated the Health and Wellness Alliance of the Philippines (HEAL Philippines), composed primarily of private and public hospitals, spas, wellness destinations, stand-alone clinics, retirement communities, and support services such as travel agencies, airlines, etc. According to Dr. Joven Cuanang, President of HEAL Philippines and Chief Medical Officer of St. Luke’s Medical Center, one of the organization’s strategies is “to make sure that there’s going to be a seamless delivery of healthcare in all the activities we want to promote. It will be a well-coordinated effort, from the patient’s point of entry to exit, between public and private institutions, making sure to highlight the gracious hospitality of the Filipinos.”

Catching the Quality Wave

Given that the government’s primary responsibility is to its local citizens, the big question when it comes to medical tourism is this: What’s in it for the local citizens? As a Filipino, one has to ask two questions: 1) How does medical travel/tourism’s promotional earnings from this help the local citizen? And 2) How does this improve the local healthcare infrastructure?

“What medical tourism has done (for India) is that it initiated a quality enhancement wave which helps local citizens in getting better care than what was available to them previously,” says Dr. Malik. “If the earnings coming from foreign patients is utilized adequately to support public health, then it would be a win-win situation for both domestic and international patients.”

With the advent of medical travel, the Philippines’ quality standards when it comes to healthcare are enhanced. And with more hospitals steadily undergoing international accreditation programs, this also means that local patients will be benefitting from treatments that are at par with global standards.

It will also enhance complementary industries such as telecommunications, travel, airlines and hospitality. “It really has an effect that keeps on multiplying itself,” shares Dr. Malik. “I think that the most important effect is that it reverses and reduces the brain drain. Because according to a 2006 Gallup Poll, it’s lack of career progression and the workplace environment that are the main factors why people leave their countries or change their jobs. So if you create a kind of culture where you are utilizing international practices, there’s good technology, and both foreign and local patients are treated well, you create a culture where a person feels satisfied. This reduces and reverses the brain drain of all the people who have gone abroad for greener pastures. If you have all these in your own country, why leave?”

Published in Manila Bulletin, Business Agenda Section, March 29, 2010.
Photo provided by HIM Communications.