Medical tourism catches cold from COVID travel curbs

LONDON: The nascent international medical tourism sector has hit a brick wall.

Leading hospital operators in Southeast Asia suffered a heavy blow to profits last year as coronavirus travel restrictions squeezed cash cow services aimed at medical tourists.

Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, which operates nearly 50 hospitals mostly in Thailand, logged a 54% plunge in net profit on a 22% decrease in revenue.

As one of Southeast Asia’s largest hospital chains, BDMS in a typical year makes roughly 30% of its revenue from overseas patients who travel to its facilities to receive care. But the company said it saw a 43% drop in such patients last year mainly from the Middle East, Australia and Myanmar, due to travel restrictions.

Malaysia’s IHH Healthcare suffered a 48% drop in net profit on a 10% decrease in revenue. The company operates 80 hospitals in 10 countries, including Malaysia and Singapore.

Travel restrictions were responsible for up to a 75% decrease in Malaysian medical tourism revenues last year, according to the Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council.

Worldwide, the market for medical tourism shrank 48% to roughly $19.8 billion in 2020, according to The Business Research Company, a U.K.-based market research firm. Asian hospitals have particularly suffered.

Hospitals in Asia and other emerging regions have attracted overseas patients by offering advanced health care for cheaper prices than in developed countries. Both the private and public sectors have also worked together to provide additional perks, such as luxury hotel-like accommodations and easier access to medical visas.

Thailand and Malaysia, which are home to large-scale hospital chains, ranked among the world’s top five countries in patients numbers, according to a 2019 calculation by Doctors Without Borders.

But medical tourism is expected to suffer a protracted chill as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. BDMS and IHH are offering telemedicine options and other alternatives, though it is unclear whether such efforts will be enough to offset the blow.