Medical tourism demand from China

Although China is promoted as a medical tourism destination, with the difficulty of getting visas and lack of destinations, the numbers going there are small so far. But the real interest is the quiet but hidden growth that now makes China one of the main suppliers of outbound medical tourists.

The number of Chinese going abroad for medical treatment has increased significantly in recent years due to rising affluence and mobility of the country’s emerging middle class population. Chinese health consumers are not motivated by price but by the poor availability of services. Outbound Chinese have high-middle to upper class income levels and are going abroad to receive a quality of service, care and discretion not widely available in their home country. China’s rapid development into the world’s second largest economy over the past few decades has generated millions of people wealthy enough to demand the highest quality of care available worldwide and pursue elective medical procedures

China’s healthcare system has and will be improved but it starts from a low base of public care rather than a mix of private and public care as in other countries. Treatment costs are very low, the range in services is narrow and service quality varies by and within region from excellent to very basic.

Medical tourism countries are finding that Chinese consumers are willing to pay high prices for quality services and privacy, but only if the service is meeting Chinese consumer needs. One key to this huge market potential, is as some hospitals and clinics in South Korea and the USA have quickly realized is Chinese-speaking staff. While many Chinese speak several languages, they are comfortable using these for tourism, but not for medical treatment or business.

According to the Chinese Medical Doctor Association, the most popular destinations for Chinese medical tourists include Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and the USA. The number of outbound Chinese medical tourists has increased from just a few thousand at the start of the decade to nearly 60,000 annual travelers in 2010.

The Shanghai Medical Tourism Products and Promotion Platform says anti-aging therapy, cancer screening, high-end diagnostics, and treatment and care for chronic diseases have become the most common type of procedure sought out by China’s medical tourists. For those who want to venture abroad for treatment but have not yet: language barriers and lack of private health insurance are seen as the principal obstacles to partaking in overseas medical treatment. Health insurance in China is very new still.

Some Chinese health travellers are expectant mothers leaving the mainland to give birth in a foreign country-maternity tourism. While some argue that it is to avoid local laws on the number of children, this argument falls down as they all return to China. The more believable reason is that many come from other parts of China such as Hong Kong or Taiwan so want to’ go home’ for birth. In 2010, 40,648 mainland mothers gave birth to children in Hong Kong hospitals, out of the 88,000 total in the city for 2010. New legislation by Hong Kong limits the number of non-residents allowed to give birth in the city to 34,000 in 2012 and beyond.