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Medical Tourism Becoming Popular Among China's Middle Class

Posted on Nov 07, 2011 by Sergio Ulloa ()

The number of Mainland Chinese citizens choosing to venture abroad for medical treatment has increased significantly in recent years in conjunction with the overall rising affluence and geo-mobility of the nation's emerging middle class population. However, while most outbound health tourists are driven by the skyrocketing healthcare costs occurring in their home countries; Chinese consumers have been motivated by other factors. Traditionally it has been the rising healthcare costs in mature largely-western economies, combined with the falling costs of global travel and communication, which have encouraged private citizens to voyage overseas for more cost effective destinations when seeking health and wellbeing services. As part of this development, world class healthcare facilities have been establishing themselves all across the world, providing international clients, who are seeking alternative healthcare solutions to what is available in their home countries, with many more treatment options at competitive prices. In China however, domestic healthcare costs have not been the principal motivator for health tourism. Outbound Mainland Chinese clients have tended to have high-middle to upper class income levels and are instead going abroad to receive a quality of service, care and discretion not widely available in their home country. Overall, China's rapid development into the world's second largest economy over the past few decades has generated with it a huge number of people wealthy enough to demand the highest quality of care available worldwide and pursue a multitude of elective medical procedures if need be. The country's healthcare system has not ascended in tow during that period, and while base treatment costs have remained cheap by some global standards, the range in services provided is too narrow for many patients and service quality varies considerably based on region. International healthcare providers have found that these Chinese consumers are among the most willing to pay top dollar for quality services and privacy, and healthcare providers are tailoring their services to better cater to Chinese consumer needs. Realizing this huge market potential, some medical tourist organizations in countries like South Korea and the US have established specialized Chinese-speaking healthcare operations to accommodate Chinese patients exclusively. According to the Beijing Medical Doctor Association, the most popular destinations for Mainland Chinese medical tourists over the past few years have been Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. These locations have proven popular not for the comparative cost of treatment (India, Thailand and Malaysia remain the most attractive in that regard) but for their exacting healthcare standards and the other, more conventional high-brow shopping and tourist attractions they can provide for Chinese consumers outside of their hospitals. The number of outbound Chinese medical tourists has increased from just a few thousand at the start of the decade to nearly 60,000 annual travelers in 2010. An aging population and rising individual incomes have increased the demand for medical and healthcare products and services throughout the country in that time. According to data released from China's Ministry of Health, Mainland citizens aged 60 or above accounted for about 13.3 percent of the country's total population in 2010, a considerable increase on the 10.3 percent reported 10 years ago. At the same time, the disposable income of urban Chinese residents has climbed roughly threefold between 2000 and 2010 to CNY19,109 (US$3,000). These broad socioeconomic trends have been reflected in the types of medical treatment Chinese consumers are choosing to receive abroad. According to the Shanghai Medical Tourism Products and Promotion Platform, anti-aging therapy, cancer screening, high-end diagnostics, and treatment and care for chronic diseases have become the most common type of procedure sought out by China's medical tourists. For those who want to venture abroad for treatment but haven't yet: language barriers, lack of private health insurance coverage and cost concerns were cited as the principal obstacles to partaking in overseas medical treatment. There is one other medical tourism factor that has become quite unique to Chinese health travelers and that is the wave of expectant mothers leaving the mainland to give birth in a foreign country, a practice now widely known as maternity tourism. For Chinese nationals there are a number of reasons to give birth outside of the People's Republic, the country's notorious population control legislation, or "One Child Policy," being the chief among them. Under the policy's complicated rules, only couples that belong to ethnic minorities or those coming from one-child families themselves (and certain other specialized scenarios) are allowed to have second children. The PRC government also grants local authorities considerable leeway in how they enforce the policy and this can result in severe fines or physical punishment for Chinese couples who defy the rules. In Guangzhou for example, the fines associated with having a second child can exceed CNY180,000 (US$ 27,450), a prohibitive expense for most of the region's inhabitants. As a result, Mainland Chinese couples who are seeking siblings for their children, or the all-important male heir, are deciding to go abroad to give birth rather than risk fines or further punishment from their local governments. Hong Kong has proven to be the most popular destination for expecting Mainland Chinese mothers so far. While the city-state is now officially part of the PRC, it is exempted from the Mainland government's population control policies and children born within its borders are ensured Hong Kong residency, and all the rights to local social services that entails. In 2010, however, Hong Kong's medical facilities were put under serious duress when 40,648 Mainland mothers gave birth to children in city hospitals, roughly 46 percent of the city's 88,000 total for the year. This has resulted in legislation written by Hong Kong's food and health secretary earlier this year, which will cap the number of non-residents allowed to give birth in the city to 34,000 in 2012 and beyond. With no end to Mainland China's population controls in sight, maternity tourism will no doubt continue to be an issue, but one that can hopefully be ameliorated by the accompanying demand by Chinese clients for more advanced and expensive international healthcare.
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