Beyond traditional parameters of medical care, spa and wellness services, alternative treatments are defining new luxury standards.

Luxury niches light the new face of medical tourism in Asia

Luxury niches light  the new face of  medical tourism in Asia
Photo Credit: illustration credits/getty images

As medical tourism in Asia continues to mature, travellers are going beyond cost savings in search for a more refined visage. A distinct luxury segment in medical tourism is emerging, and with it, a myriad of factors beyond the traditional parameters of medical care now matters more than ever. 

With more medical providers upping the ante with delivery of care outside traditional hospital settings, technology adoption and innovative healthcare access programmes, Asia Pacific is expected to see an 11.1% growth in its healthcare sector this year with a market size of US$517 billion, according to Frost & Sullivan’s Asia-Pacific Healthcare Outlook 2018 report. 

In particular, the delivery of care is an area undergoing revolution. A big part of this is the rising class of ‘medical hubs’ that increasingly integrate private hospital credentials with luxury hospitality components ranging from rehabilitation and recovery treatments, alternative medicine, spa and wellness services and farm-to-table gourmet dining.

Singapore’s private healthcare sector push
In Singapore, this development is unsurprising. The country’s tourism board has over the years worked closely with healthcare sector providers in expanding their reach in key target markets, said Soo Siew Keong, director, trade engagement and market access, Singapore Tourism Board.

Now, the private healthcare sector acts as the main driver for medical travel in Singapore. “These private healthcare providers are in a position to take the lead and directly drive the growth of the industry,” Soo explained.

When Connexion, Asia’s first S$800 million (US$606 million) integrated healthcare and hospitality complex, opened in 2016 in Singapore, it sought to carve out a niche with its healthcare-hospitality fusion amid the city’s increasingly sophisticated healthcare landscape. 

The Touch & Feel showcase at One Farrer Hotel & Spa where guests can see items before purchasing.
The Touch & Feel showcase at One Farrer Hotel & Spa where guests can see items before purchasing.

The extent of this integration is evident in the complex’s layout, which combines the 220-bed facility hospital with its hospitality component, the 243-room One Farrer Hotel & Spa, in its west wing. Its east wing assembles various medical centres offering specialist treatment, health screening and preventive medicine.

Beyond high-quality medical treatment delivered by its 300 accredited specialists and 600 hospital staff, medically-enabled hospitality facilities such as The Farrer Suites offer accommodation in self-contained units for the utmost comfort and privacy, replete with their own private lift system and full hotel services and amenities. 

More importantly, luxury is lavished through a dedicated culinary service that offers patients an extensive menu of nutritious chef cooked-to-order meals, available around the clock. 

Green spaces: Zen Garden at HealthConnexion.
Green spaces: Zen Garden at HealthConnexion.

Part of its appeal to a high-end clientele is its lifestyle component, Owen Link, a retail avenue on the complex’s ground floor. A lifestyle concierge service is also available for patients, who have the option of shopping online through the wireless tablets provided, and can later have their purchases sent up to their bedside. 

With the increasing expansion of medical facilities in Singapore, there is in tandem a growing development where private healthcare groups are expanding their footprint beyond Singapore to provide foreign patients easy accessibility to advanced high-quality care locally, noted Jessie Khoo-Gan, executive assistant manager, sales & marketing and rooms, One Farrer Hotel & Spa.

Singapore: medical tourism in numbers
• Ranked 4th globally among medical tourism destinations 
• Only Asian destination to break top five rankings
Source: 2016 Medical Tourism Index 
by The International Healthcare. Research Center (IHRC).

‘Medical fringe’ gains favour in Jeju
While medical tourism draws a profile of big-spenders willing to shell out for the best in complex medical procedures outside their home country, preventive healthcare services for wellness are increasingly on travellers’ agendas, remarked One Farrer’s Khoo-Gan. 

Customised services for patients to improve not just their physical health but their overall wellbeing including dietary and fitness assessments and wellness activities are on offer at HealthConnexion, a component in the Connexion campus.

The drive towards ‘medical fringe’ treatments is perhaps more known in destinations like South Korea. These include non-Western strategies such as herbal treatments and acupuncture, integrated with allopathic care.

South Korea’s Jeju Island, marketed as a ‘medical island’, highlights its appeal to the luxury segment of health-conscious travellers with its outsized focus on its nature surrounds and ‘healing and wellness’ offerings. 

WE Hotel, a premium health resort.
WE Hotel, a premium health resort.

One of the island’s major health resorts, WE Hotel, offers guests an all-inclusive resort experience focused on wellness. Located in the resort, the WE Healing Centre offers a wide array of water and forest therapy programmes. The centre is a rehabilitation and treatment facility that consists of a healing centre,  hotel and hospital. 

Major programmes include Hae-Am Hydro, a type of floatation therapy that involves acupressure and massage treatments with a floatation device, and fitness programmes such as Aqua Yoga and Aqua Exercise. 

Forest therapy sessions, which make use of Jeju’s island surrounds, orthopaedic treatments and pain relief, are also available. 

South Korea: medical tourism in numbers
• 452,380 foreign visitors to South Korea in 2016 for ‘medical purposes’
• 8.61 billion won in total revenue
Source: South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Malaysia springs into wellness
With Malaysia entering into a deeper public-private partnership in the healthcare sector, the country is branching out from luxury medical treatments to elective and complex care. 

“Attention is shifting to medical disciplines such as cardiology, fertility, oncology, ENT, bariatrics, stem cell therapy and orthopaedics,” said Benjamin Philip George, chief operating officer at George Medical Getaway, a full-service medical tourism facilitator in Kuala Lumpur.

Last year, the medical tourism facilitator fielded more than 500 clients, with health and wellness treatments forming the majority of requests. These include stem cell therapy, health screening and DNA testing, wellness and oncology. 

For the country as a whole, Malaysia aims to specialise in medical niches such as fertility and cardiology following a recent budget announcement of a RM30-million (US$7.65 million) fund to promote the country as a medical tourism destination in Asia. The country is playing up its affordability, foreign-trained doctors and world-class facilities.

The government-initiated Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), established in 2011, reported that the industry is picking up quickly with double-digit growth. Last year, Malaysia experienced a 23% growth, outpacing the global growth of the healthcare industry.

Towards this end, the country’s annual tourism campaign, Visit Malaysia Year (VMY) will include ‘health’ as a theme to position the country as the regional leader and global destination for healthcare. 

Malaysia: medical tourism in numbers
• In 2016, 23% growth generated RM1.12 billion in hospital revenues
• By 2020, RM2.8-3.0 billion in hospital revenues and 20-30% growth expected
Source: Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC).

The Agent Perspective
The rise of medical tourism can be an attractive opportunity for travel agents to cater to a wider pool of prospective clients. Agents who are not well-versed in this area can choose to partner with medical travel coordinators such as Ulink Assist Pte Ltd, a Singapore inbound medical travel coordinator, who is on the look out for partners in China – one of its two growth markets including Myanmar.

“As competition between travel agents increases, they are looking for ways to differentiate themselves,” said its director Chien-Wei Tan.  

The company counts its clients mainly from Cambodia and Bangladesh, and typically provides services including clinic and hospital arrangements, hotel bookings, private car transfers, patient accompaniment and language translations during consultation, hotel and visa arrangements.

A good way to entice high-end tourists, suggested Tan, is by offering ‘fun+health’ closed-quotation itineraries. “Tourists can do a health screening during the early part of the trip before touring Singapore. They can then have their results reviewed by a doctor at the end of the trip just before leaving,” he explained. 

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