Taiwan Medical Tourism: Opportunity or Risky Distraction?

Taiwan medical tourism is becoming increasingly popular, especially with Chinese patients. But is prioritizing tourists a misuse of medical resources?

Since 2009 when the Executive Yuan designated medical tourism as one of six “emerging industries” earmarked for development, the government has annually set aside budget to promote Taiwan medical tourism abroad as a method for healthcare treatment. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, the fund amounted to NT$630 million (US$21 million).

Proponents of the policy view it as beneficial to Taiwan’s drive to boost tourism by adding another reason for visitors to come to the island, while benefiting the healthcare sector by providing Taiwan hospitals with another source of income to reduce their reliance on the chronically cash-strapped National Health Insurance system.

In attracting patients from abroad, however, Taiwan is up against some stiff competition in the region. Thailand, India, and Singapore together currently command about 80% of the Asian medical tourism market, which this year is estimated to comprise over 10 million patients. For the local healthcare industry to carve itself a larger piece of the pie, the focus is now on improving brand recognition and increasing international awareness of what Taiwan can offer in the way of high-quality, affordable medical care.

According to statistics published by the Tourism Bureau, in 2013 over 100,000 tourists gave “medical treatment” as their reason for entering Taiwan – and of these, over 95% came from China.

The major responsibility for promoting the business has been assigned to the Taiwan Taskforce for Medical Travel (TTFMT), an organization supervised by the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW). Its website, www.medicaltravel.org.tw, provides information not only on medical procedures and facilities available in Taiwan but also on the country’s many conventional tourist opportunities. Besides an English-language option, the website can be navigated in Chinese in either traditional or simplified characters. In fact, the overwhelming majority of medical tourists continue to arrive from mainland China, drawn to Taiwan by both the geographical proximity and ethnic and linguistic ties.

According to statistics published by the Tourism Bureau, in 2013 over 100,000 tourists gave “medical treatment” as their reason for entering Taiwan – and of these, over 95% came from China. Yet for the same year, MOHW reports that over 230,000 foreigners sought treatment in Taiwan.

Taiwan Medical Tourism
Taiwan’s hospitals roll out the red banner for Chinese medical tourists

The reason for the disparity in figures, explains Tourism Bureau Section Chief Vicky Cheng, is that for many people, medical treatment is just one part of their trip to Taiwan. “Tourists are increasing, particularly medical tourists,” says Cheng. “But when you come here, medical treatment isn’t necessarily the complete reason for your trip.” As a result, many tourists – Chinese included – do not consider medical treatment the express purpose for their visit and do not list it as such when entering Taiwan.

Physical examinations are the most common service offered to foreigners in Taiwan, since they are easily combined with vacations and are available even in smaller cities in Taiwan. “If you come to Taiwan for say eight days,” says Cheng, “perhaps you’ll go to Hualien and a medical facility in Hualien can do a health checkup. Actually in Taiwan, there’s an opportunity to do this almost anywhere – not just in Taipei but also in Kaohsiung, Taichung, Hualien, or Taitung.”

Besides complete health checks, other frequent treatments for medical tourists are cosmetic and non-invasive surgery, due to the relatively quick recovery times.

Recently more attention has been given to medical tourism as a way to increase the average expenditure by visitors to Taiwan. Since Chinese tourists currently spend a mere NT$1,000 per day on the average – quite low if tourism is viewed as a means of boosting Taiwan’s economy –the hope is that luxury packages that include cosmetic surgery or health checks can entice higher-spending customers to come to Taiwan.

Visitors for medical reasons are also exempt from the usual quotas on travel to Taiwan for Chinese. As a result, explains Cheng, some Chinese “will apply for the medical visa” if they cannot obtain the needed travel documents through regular channels. “Yet their main purpose is still to travel,” she notes.

“At best, medical tourism would siphon off resources, time, and talent for the benefit of tourists who are likely to come mainly from China.”

Increasingly, some Taiwanese hospitals and surgeons are building an international reputation for more complex procedures, such as the life-saving, living-donor liver transplant surgery that Dr. Chen Chao-Long of Kaohsiung’s Chang Gung Memorial Hospital has performed on patients from across the globe. At an AmCham event in early August, Dr. Chen gave an address on his experience as Taiwan’s flagship surgeon for international medical care. Dr. Chen’s high average rate of three-year survival for living-donor transplant—which exceeds that of Japan, the United States, and Europe—has led to invitations to perform surgery in China as well as numerous trips to Taiwan’s allies in Latin America to establish medical training programs in partnership with Chang Gung Hospital. President Ma has called Dr. Chen’s dedication to outreach and training an example of “medical diplomacy,” as such actions help to build recognition and appreciation of Taiwan abroad.

Still, the idea of promoting medical tourism in Taiwan also has its detractors. “I think it’s a pipe dream,” says Dan Silver, co-chair of AmCham Taipei’s Medical Devices Committee. “At best, medical tourism would siphon off resources, time, and talent for the benefit of tourists who are likely to come mainly from China. And it would require a lot of investment to generate the necessary level of awareness and create the needed support systems. At the national level, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of benefit.”

“Even in the U.S. where we have the best medical care in the world, there are only a handful of places that engage in routine medical tourism,” adds Silver. “It’s inconsequential.”

Taiwan’s effort to promote medical tourism already faces some major obstacles. In June 2010, the Cabinet moved to invest NT$4.1 billion towards building a medical zone, designated exclusively for foreign patients, as part of the Aerotropolis planned for the area surrounding Taoyuan International Airport. At the time, the government estimated that the zone could attract about 45,000 patients per year, helping to inject revenue of NT$10.9 billion annually into the local economy. Since then, however, implementation of the Aerotropolis project has slowed, largely due to differing opinions on the best policy for transplanting communities displaced by the development.