Friday, June 27, 2008

Thai hospitals lure rising number of patients from Middle East

By Agence France Presse (AFP)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Elizabeth Gibson

Agence France Press

BANGKOK: The conversation buzzing over Fatima Rashid Al-Hemaidi sounds like a meeting of ambassadors - her daughter speaking Arabic, the doctor Thai and English, and the translator a mix of all three. Beneath it all, Hemaidi is smiling patiently from a nest of blankets in a blue hospital gown and black headscarf.

"OK mama," the doctor says to her in English as she pulls away the stethoscope.

On her third trip from Qatar to Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital Hemaidi is familiar with the routine, just as hospitals here are becoming more familiar with clients who, like her, come from the Middle East for medical treatment.

The number of Middle Eastern visitors to Thailand has been rising steadily in recent years, especially since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US when Arab tourists found the West less than welcoming.

Last year Thailand received 453,000 visitors from the Middle East, up nearly 12 percent from 2006, with a significant number coming not for beach holidays but for the hospitals.

Bumrungrad alone treated 90,000 patients from the Middle East, up nine-fold compared to the year 2000, making them a fast-growing segment in the hospital's lucrative international practice.

"This is a win-win situation," said Tares Krassanairawiwong, an official from the Thai Public Health Ministry. "People [from the Middle East] can have good quality care and we can gain more revenue."

Thailand markets its hospitals as offering lower prices for their services than in the US, but of a higher quality than countries such as India.

A hip replacement operation, for example, would cost about $35,000 in the United States and $6,500 in India, according to the Health Ministry here, which says the same procedure costs $12,000 in Thailand.

The Thai government has trained 50 of its hospitals to deal with Middle Eastern insurance policies and cultural demands, said Tares. Bumrungrad stands at the forefront of Thailand's international medical services, setting an example for others to emulate.

Borihan Suwandee, a Thai Muslim who attended medical school in Egypt, oversees everything in the hospital that caters specifically for Arab patients - halal meals, Arab coffee, 40 Arabic translators, a resident imam prayer leader, and a large prayer room built last year.

"We have to look after them medically and socially," Borihan said of the Arab patients.

Hemaidi, who has 10 children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, broke her back in a fall last September. "She went to the private hospital from doctor to doctor until she could not move at all," her daughter Lolwa said.

"They said she was an old woman so it wasn't worth the operation. When we came here the doctors told us something very different. It was her last hope." Hemaidi arrived in Bangkok on a stretcher and checked into a hospital suite paid for by Qatar's universal health care.

It was the first time she had left her country.

Her operation took four hours and doctors said there was a 70 percent chance of success. Now she can move on her own and even walk short distances.

"There was so much pain I couldn't recognize the people who came to visit. I told the doctor just to cut my back off," Hemaidi said.

"Now I feel like I want to treat every pain here."

Hemaidi has made two follow-up trips and this time decided to have an operation to reduce pressure in her abdomen and says she is also considering knee surgery.

After three visits, the only Bangkok sites she has seen are hospital wards and the lobby cafe but says she'd like to buy a holiday home in Thailand.

"Now if anyone feels pain," Hemaidi's daughter said, "my mum always says you have to go to Bangkok."

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