Government urged to further develop as medical tourism hub


TAIPEI, Taiwan — High medical standards, a sound tourism environment, and a clear policy would position Taiwan to become a world medical tourism hub, but the government needs to fine tune its approach and to adopt a more aggressive advertising strategy, experts suggested Saturday.

Vice President Vincent Siew said Saturday that the quality of medical care in Taiwan is on par with more developed countries, but the cost in Taiwan is relatively lower.

He promised that the government will enhance Taiwan’s competitiveness in this field with an eye to developing the country’s medical tourism industry.

Taiwan is seen poised to join other Asian countries, such as Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, to tap into the lucrative medical tourism market, as more and more people are traveling abroad to find cheaper health care.

Taiwan’s plans to open its doors wider to tourists from China is also seen likely to mesh with its medical tourism goals.

The Executive Yuan in July 2007 approved an NT$10.5 billion (US$34 million) project to promote Taiwan’s medical services as a major attraction for foreign visitors.

According to the Executive Yuan, the project was expected to draw 100,000 patients in three years and create about 3,500 job opportunities. But according to experts in the field, the project never really took off.

“The yield (of the project) is almost zero,” a travel agency manager in charge of promoting medical tourism claimed. He said that only a small number of Chinese patients have come to Taiwan for medical services since the project was launched, but he did not give a precise figure.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said that the problem lies in the previous government’s closed-door policies.

“The government set too many restrictions, which have undercut Chinese patients’ interest in coming to Taiwan,” the manager said, adding that dentistry, health examinations and medical cosmetology should be incorporated in the project.

Under the project, Chinese patients are permitted to enter Taiwan for the purposes of liver transplantation, craniofacial reconstruction, cardiovascular invasive treatment and surgery, artificial insemination and joint replacement.

“But are people with serious conditions able to undergo surgery and travel within a very short period?” asked Li Kun-lun, secretary-general of the Taiwan Medical Tourism Development Association.

He added that in order to develop Taiwan’s medical tourism, the government’s first priority should be to integrate the resources of different agencies, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mainland Affairs Council, the Tourism Bureau, and the Department of Health.

Li also said that Taiwan was not capitalizing on its medical assets, which in some cases surpass those of highly ranked medical tourism destinations like Thailand.

For example, Taiwan has 33 highly sophisticated and expensive PEP scanners, used mainly for cancer detection, while Thailand has only two, but Thailand drew 1.3 million medical tourists last year, while Taiwan attracted 6,000, he said.

Meanwhile, the travel agency manager criticized the government’s level of international medical tourism advertising, saying that it was inadequate.

“People seeking plastic surgery mainly think about South Korea, but in reality Taiwan has a high quality service,” he said. “What we need is a comprehensive promotion strategy.”

Even though Taiwan’s medical tourism industry is in the early stages, it has excellent advantages and can succeed if it really wants, he added.