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Taiwan Hopes to Become a Player in Medical Tourism

New America Media, News Report, Eugenia Chien Posted: Jun 25, 2008

Editor's Note: Chang Bing Show Chwan Memorial Hospital is among the group of Taiwanese hospitals that are actively courting international visitors for medical tourism. Taiwan is poised to become a destination much like Thailand and Singapore. Eugenia Chien is a writer with New America Media.

LUKANG, TaiwanStrolling through the spacious lobby, I made my way past a glossy electric grand piano over to a small caf. As I put my face up to the glass case displaying pretty little cakes, the barista smiled and asked if Id like to try anything. For a moment I forgot that I was in the lobby of Chang Bing Show Chwan Memorial Hospital until a man walked slowly by the bakery, his arm clutching an IV bag.

Chang Bing Show Chwan Memorial Hospital is among the group of Taiwanese hospitals that are actively courting international visitorsincluding the Chinesefor medical tourism. Last year, the Taiwan Department of Health formed an initiative to facilitate medical travel. The program includes 20 hospitals that work with airlines, hotels, and travel agencies, as well as the government, to attract medical visitors. If they are successful, Taiwan is poised to become a destination for medical tourism much like Thailand and Singapore, two of the most popular countries for medical tourism in Asia.

At Chang Bing Show Chwan Memorial Hospital, the management models their services after six-star hotels, according to the president of the hospital, Dr. Min-Ho Huang.

Right when you come in, you get the idea that this is unlike any other hospital, Huang says.

The hospital is built on an 8.5-acre industrial park and includes mental health facilities, high tech imaging systems, and perks like a spa, hair salon, library, and business center. A shuttle runs from the hospital to the center of town, about twenty minutes away. For now, almost all the patients are local residents of Lukang, according to Dr. Hon-Ki Hsu of Chang Bing Show Chwan. Because they are covered under the national health insurance program, the cost of seeing a doctor at Chang Bing Show Chwan Memorial Hospital is the same as seeing another doctor at a smaller local clinic.

Since 1995, Taiwanese citizens have enjoyed universal health care, which allowed them to see any doctor at any hospital without referral. With a Smart Card that keeps their health records, Taiwanese citizens can receive dental, prenatal care, vision and major surgeries. Because Taiwans universal health insurance system is a single-payer systemthe payer being the governmentit has the lowest administrative cost in the world. The average family premium for health care in Taiwan is $650 per year for a family of four.

Taiwans universal health insurance program has been very successful by most measures, but the cost of maintaining the program is staggering. The Taiwanese government has had to borrow money from banks to pay for parts of the health insurance program.

The government spends about 6 percent of the GDP on health insurancewe are going bankrupt, says Dr. John Jean, CEO of International Medical Service Center at Wan Fang Hospital in Taipei.

Wan Fang Hospital is one of the first hospitals to participate in the governments medical tourism initiative. A publicly owned hospital, Wan Fang is a bustling, busy hospital serving many patients from the Taipei municipality. The hospital is one of the three Taiwanese medical centers to be accredited by the Joint Commission International, an international organization that also accredits American hospitals. At Wan Fang, 30 out of the 170 doctors were trained in the United States, according to Wu Ming-Yen, CEO of the Taiwan Task Force on Medical Travel. The hospital has built a private office to see international patients, and many doctors are fluent in English.

Wu says that in the last year, Pakistani patients have come to Taiwan for liver transplants, other international patients have come for dialysis and infertility treatments, which cost one fifth of the prices in the United States. Data for the number of international medical tourists is scant because the medical tourism program is new and the government has not tracked international medical visitors separately from immigrant workers. But anecdotally, few patients come from outside of Taiwan solely for the purpose of medical tourism.
Taiwan must cross several hurdles before medical tourism can be successful. One of the most significant barriers is language. In Thailand, they offer 29 languages at these hospitals, says Wu. Most hospitals in Taiwan lack such capabilities. Most doctors involved the medical tourism program say that patients from China and Japan are the most likely to partake in medical service in Taiwan.

Putting their political differences aside, many hospitals are vying for patients from China where language and culture are similar enough for patients to be comfortable. Starting in July, the Taiwanese government is opening direct weekend charter flights that could result in as many as 3,000 Chinese visitors in Taiwan a day. Some doctors are also pushing for expedited medical visas for Chinese visitors. Im hoping for a new beginning as medical visas become possible, says Dr. Jean of Wan Fang Hospital.

Doctors also admit that treating a serious medical condition in an unfamiliar country might deter many patients even if the cost is low. Taiwanese hospitals boast major medical specialties including liver transplants, joint replacements, and artificial reproduction. The medical travel initiative program also promotes treatments such as hot springs, cosmetic surgery, optometry, and dental care.

Surveys of Taiwanese citizens show their level of satisfaction with the health care system has been high, hovering at around 70 percent until in 2006, when satisfaction rates declined to around 65 percent, partly due to the programs underfunding. The high number of patients seen by doctors have resulted in short visit times, averaging two to five minutes per patient. Though medical tourism could help fund the national health insurance program, it remains to be seen how it can affect the health care quality for Taiwanese themselves.

Back at Chang Bing Show Chwan Memorial Hospital, a tour guide shows me their newest high tech equipment, a Gamma Knife radiation therapy device that can treat brain tumors. We have the best that money can buy, says Min-Ho Huang, president of the hospital.

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