American Medical Providers and Patients Explore New Markets in the Asia Pacific

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by Olivia Waring

To facilitate the global exchange of clinical expertise, many American medical institutions are establishing formal ties with partners in Asia. Such collaborations allow countries with historically less well-equipped healthcare facilities to adopt higher medical training standards. Indeed, scholarly metrics suggest that the locus of R&D investment is migrating eastward, as evidenced by the emergence of so-called “knowledge hubs” in the major cities of China, India, and Singapore.

US healthcare centers from coast to coast are pursuing partnerships in the Asia Pacific. The Portland-based Oregon Health and Science University recently brokered a collaboration with Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, Thailand’s foremost healthcare provider. The University of Nebraska Medical Center opened a branch in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone this past October. The United States Pharmacopeial Convention, a Maryland-based nonprofit that fixes pharmaceutical standards, established its first international outpost at the IKP Knowledge Park in Hyderabad, India, in 2005 and has since expanded to China. The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in particular, has moved decisively towards internationalization, establishing formal affiliations in India, China, Singapore, and Japan. Collaborations such as these have far-reaching consequences. For instance, scientists at Johns Hopkins hope to leverage the resources of their satellite facilities across the globe to compile a more comprehensive map of the human genome, which will prove invaluable in pinpointing ethnicity-dependent health factors. 

As more and more US healthcare providers establish overseas presences, a growing number of American patients are following suit. Over the past several decades, medical tourism has evolved from a rare and rather extreme treatment option into a well-organized, $100 billion industry with its own bevy of consulting agencies. This past year, an estimated 1.25 million Americans went abroad seeking medical treatment, most of them headed for Asia. For example, in 2012, US patients flocked to Thailand in greater numbers than visitors from all of ASEAN, becoming Thailand’s second largest medical tourist group behind Japan. Bangkok’s Bumrungrad International Hospital alone welcomed 20,000 Americans in 2013.

The financial incentives behind medical tourism are considerable. An American citizen can save as much as 50-75% by undergoing treatment in Thailand; in Malaysia, 65-80%; and in India, 65-90%. Furthermore, aided in part by the recent surge in international medical collaborations, an increasing number of Asian hospitals are achieving parity with their Western counterparts in terms of technologies and expertise. As of last August, there were 212 Joint Commission International (JCI)-accredited medical institutions throughout Asia.

With both patients and healthcare providers standing to benefit from greater cooperation across the Pacific, such partnerships can be expected to proliferate in the coming years.

Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.