Tourism ‘Should Tap Into Medical Market’

© The Age September 3, 2009

Australia should evolve its tourism mindset to capitalise on South-East Asia’s $12 billion health tourism market and open up the country to a new, big-spending type of traveller, a conference has been told.

Medical tourism guru Wei Siang Yu, from Fly Free for Health, told the Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC) conference on Thursday that Australia could easily become the largest “second opinion” destination for medical tourists thanks to its top health care and perfect positioning within the region. Dr Wei said “doctor shopping”, where people sought up to six medical opinions ahead of treatment from diseases like cancer and pediatric services, was a standard practice in South-East Asian countries where residents did not trust their country’s health care.

He said countries like India, Singapore and Thailand had spawned lucrative health tourism industries to service an estimated $180 billion worldwide market. But tourists would choose Australia over others in the region if given the chance, opening up the country to a whole new tourism market, he said.

“Doctor shopping is a very normal phenomenon in Asia,” he told the conference in Cairns on Thursday. “Their whole psyche is ‘I want the best, money is not a problem’.”In Vietnam people will sell their house then go to Singapore for a cancer treatment, so money is not really an issue. “… If you give any Singaporean, any Thai person or Malaysian the option to buy a second opinion online from Australia, they will go for it.” And thanks to the internet, it could easily be done, he said.

Dr Wei said would-be patients wanted to speak to doctors when getting second, third and fourth opinions but were happy to do so via web forums. Hospitals and clinics could generate revenue by giving their opinions, and then if the patient chose to come to Australia, all the better.

Dr Wei, whose company is behind medical tourism initiatives in South-East Asia, said Australian nurses could be trained in hospitality to be able to act as a link between a hospital or clinic and other tourism experiences. He said medical tourists did not travel alone so the key was to take a multi-faceted approach to customers who may come with a wife who wanted to shop for jewelry, or a child who wanted to go scuba diving while here.

ATEC managing director Matt Hingerty said health and wellness tourism was an untapped sector that would cater for the world’s ageing population and Australia’s private health sector could cope. “We are not here to develop a niche,” he told attendees. “Business travel is not a niche, education travel is not a niche. “… It can be about bringing education, travel and health together under one brand. “And the tourism industry desperately needs this visionary thinking.”

He said the Jackson report into the future of Australia’s tourism industry had found growth in non-leisure travel would outstrip leisure travel in the coming years.