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June 26, 2017

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Taiwan should prepare for 'medical tourism'

For the uninsured or under-insured, America can be a difficult place to be sick. A recent issue of The Economist magazine ("Operating profit," August 16th) details a trend that is beginning to pick up steam. "Medical tourism" refers to journeying outside of the United States (and sometimes Western Europe) for medical procedures and a vacation. For residents of Taiwan who are used to the cheap and high quality of healthcare provided by the Bureau of National Health Insurance, the idea of traveling overseas for medical care may sound incredible. But for many Americans, the savings can be enormous.

According to The Economist article, the price for outpatient surgery in America is double, triple or substantially more than prices in other nations. Outpatient knee surgery in the U.S. comes to nearly US$12,000, while even a relatively simple procedure such as repairing a hernia will cost an outpatient at least US$5,000. Prices abroad, however, average US$1500 for both procedures.

In past years, "medical tourism" was usually confined to plastic surgery or other "enhancements," but today it has evolved to include major medical care, including very tricky procedures such as heart surgery. More and more Westerners are putting their trust in doctors in places like India, Thailand and Mexico. Most are discovering that high-quality care is available overseas.

In July, a consultancy group predicted that the number of Americans who traveled abroad for medical care in 2007 — 750,000 — would swell to six million by 2010. The same group put the value of international medical outsourcing by 2010 at US$21 billion.

Now is the time for Taiwan to begin laying the groundwork to get in on this trend. Taiwan's doctors and medical professionals are among the best in the world. Many if not most doctors at major hospitals speak English as many of them have trained in the West. The overall quality of care, sanitary conditions and ultra-modern equipment make Taiwan a sleeping medical powerhouse that could bring in significant inflows of both capital and visitors. And the inflow is not just from money spent by "medical tourists" while they receive care and enjoy a vacation. If the nation's facilities are up to snuff, foreign investment in the health care sector is also a real possibility. Taiwan has great potential to become an excellent "medical tourism" hotspot. It's time for the relative authorities to begin preparations to jump on what could be a major 21st century trend.

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