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Outbound Chinese Medical Tourism


Chinese citizens whether wealthy or not are leaving their homes in search of the best care available or for the care that they desperately need.Global Growth Markets a market information company found that some 483000 people travelled outbound from China for medical tourism in 2015.

This number has been growing rapidly over the past few years with volumes of travellers estimated to be increasing at 31 percent annually since 2012. And this double-digit growth is set to continue with the number of outbound Chinese medical tourism expected to surpass 800000 in 2020 according to Global Growth Markets analysts.

These medical travellers spent USD6.3 billion on treatment in 2015 and a further USD3.4 billion on related travel and accommodation making outbound Chinese medical tourism a USD9.7 billion business. This market is being driven both by major changes in Chinas demographic make-up and in its peoples ability and willingness to spend.

Who is Leaving China for Care?

With average hospital costs paid by Chinese medical tourists ranging from USD1500 for dental procedures right up to USD146000 for oncology treatment and major destinations ranging from as near as Hong Kong to as far as the U.S. it is clear that even though it is in the early stages of development the Chinese outbound market is already multi-faceted.

Chinese Medical Tourism on the Rise

The new research by Global Growth Markets looks at the market in terms of two key dimensions: treatment type (essential vs. elective) and willingness to spend (want to spend vs. have to spend). Those who need treatment overseas have serious conditions such as certain cancers that cannot be treated in China due to lack of approved drugs insufficient surgeons with the necessary skills or lack of technologies.

Those who want treatment overseas may have life-threatening problems such as a serious cardiac condition or they may just have decided they are tired of wearing reading glasses and want intra-ocular lens implants. They want the best available. Or perhaps they just feel like combining their treatment with a holiday.Three key segments emerge:

  • Affluent elective  happy to pay for a treatment they want
  • Affluent essential  happy to pay for the treatment they need
  • Middle-class essential  find a way to pay for a treatment they need

It is estimated that by 2020 out of Chinas 250 million urban households 134 million will be defined as Middle Class or above. Almost half of those numbers will be considered Affluent- this means that there will be over 400 million people potentially able to spend on medical tourism for essential treatments of which 195 million will be potentially in the market for elective treatment overseas.

On the other end of the spectrum there are those who don have sufficient savings to pay for medical travel but desperately need treatment that is either not available in China or considered too risky to undertake there.

Where are they going?

When a Chinese medical tourist is planning their trip overseas they usually manage everything for themselves from start to finish. The majority of these tourists select other Asian destinations. Out of the 483000 patients that left China for care in 2015 less than 2 percent left Asia.

The patients that did decide to venture further away mainly went to the U.S. for treatments such as cardiac surgery cancer programs or surrogacy. Switzerland is emerging as a destination for super-rich Chinese to try out anti-ageing stem cell therapy. And at USD50000 to USD100000 per treatment it really is only for the super-rich.

At the other end of the price range simple cosmetic procedures such as blepharoplasty and breast implants as well as dental treatments have Chinese patients flocking to nearby Korea Taiwan and Hong Kong.

  • 179000 patients from China spent over USD1 billion on hospital fees travel and accommodation in Korea in 2015
  • 150000 went to Taiwan in 2015
  • 53000 went to Hong Kong in 2015

Japan saw 27000 visits  including those choosing the country over Singapore or the U.S. for treatment of more serious conditions  takes the East Asian total to 409000 or 85 percent of all outbound Chinese medical tourism. Most of the remaining 15 percent headed to Southeast Asia especially Malaysia and Thailand which attracted 58000 between them for wellness health checks and important but less life-threatening treatment.

Singapore favored for its super-high quality of treatment rigorous efficiency and the fact that many of its doctors and hospital staff speak Mandarin played host to about 9000 Chinese patients in 2015. An estimated 3000 patients visited the U.S. and a similar number went to Europe mainly to Switzerland the UK and Germany.

Most of these were affluent patients who chose to travel so far because they could easily afford it and wanted what they considered the best possible treatment. As an interesting aside of the high net worth individuals (HNWIs) who emigrate from China 10% state the destination country's medical system as the top reason for relocating making it one of the top five drivers alongside education environment food safety and social welfare (source: Hurun Report).

Top ranked countries for the efficiency of their medical system are Singapore Korea Australia and Canada.

Untapped potential

While any USD10 billion market is worthy of note that represents less than 1.8 percent of the total USD551 billion spent globally on medical tourism in 2015 (source: Stanford Research Institute). China is home to 19 percent of the world population suggesting theoretical untapped potential more than ten times the size of the current market.

Even if only a fraction of this potential is realized in the next few years there is clearly huge scope for further development. The advent of significant numbers of Chinese medical tourism hitting the market in the past few years already represents an industry-changing trend.

About the Author

Pete Read is founder and CEO of the market information company Global Growth Markets. Since 1992 he has advised healthcare companies looking at China as well as Chinese corporations expanding overseas. He was educated at Kings College London and volunteers as a Director of the West of England China Bureau.Read another article from Pete Read about Chinese medical tourism.

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