Need a Physician? Bring a Passport

No, that's not a hotel interior. It's a VIP suite at a medical facility in Southeast Asia. And not even the most expensive inpatient accommodation available at Bumrungrad International Hospital—that would be the Premiere Royal Suite. Honestly, I found it difficult not to be a little gobsmacked the first time I saw rooms like this in person.

I mention this because I wrote a short article on Thailand's medical tourism industry last year. My editor at Tropical magazine called it "Comfort and Care: Thailand's Perennial Allure to Health Travelers," and at the end, I quoted a source who claimed that countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Costa Rica are challenging heavyweight healthcare destinations like Thailand. Many months later, flipping through the "Journeys" issue of the New Yorker, I found myself reading James Surowiecki's financial column before any of the longer travel features. This in spite of the fact that I hadn't eaten dinner yet and the magazine included an intriguing story on Russia's lost culinary heritage.

Entitled "Club Med," Surowiecki's piece mentioned Bumrungrad in Bangkok, one of the places I visited for my story. But while my piece essentially focused on the situation in a single country, Surowiecki took a wider view, writing:
If more Americans sought care abroad, it wouldn’t just save them money; it could also help control medical costs at home. Medical tourism can be considered a kind of import: instead of the product coming to the consumer, as it does with cars or sneakers, the consumer is going to the product. More medical tourism would increase free trade in medical services, something there has not been much of in the past. The U.S. has been religious about breaking down barriers to free trade, especially in manufacturing and service industries, exposing ordinary workers to foreign competition. But health care has been insulated from the forces of globalization. This has been great for hospitals and doctors, but less good for consumers. It’s one reason that the cost of health care has risen so much faster than that of almost everything else.
He offers some predictions and notes that with costs rising in the US and the quality of care improving abroad, more Americans might think again about seeking treatment elsewhere. Which makes me wonder how many people take their savings and put them towards vacations in Phuket or cheap holidays to Sharm el-Sheikh. Maybe the editors of Medical Tourism Magazine know. Because if your procedure is a fraction of what it would cost in the States, why not spend a few days seeing the country beyond the walls of your hospital? Or, as another person I interviewed put it, if you had a choice, where would you rather be recovering?

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