The Rise of Medical Tourism: U.S. Should Model Health Care System After Thailand?

Last year, more than 70,000 Americans had surgeries in Thai hospitals. Already this year, those numbers are on track to increase by 20%. Why are so many Americans flying to the other side of the globe just to have their knees or hips replaced?

The answer (that we don't like to hear): their health care system is better.

Americans often assume that it's unpatriotic to say that someplace else has something better than the U.S. However, in this increasingly global economy, certain facts must be faced, and one of them is this: the United States simply cannot compete in the health care market globally.

Thailand has a GDP of $325.6 billion. That's only three times as much as Apple, Inc.'s 2011 revenue. Why, then, does a country with barely 2% of the GDP of the U.S. offer more attractive health care options for American citizens?

In 2009, Thailand, whose medical system is largely public-sector, spent $345 (international dollars) per person on health care, with 75% of that expenditure coming from public sources (read: taxes). Contrast this with medical spending in the United States, where $7,146 is spent annually per person (20.7 times more), yet only 65% of that expenditure comes from taxes. The OECD has pointed out that the U.S. government spends enough on health care each year to cover all American citizens' medical costs without additional individual expenditures.

Many factors can be said to be involved, but it seems evident that, despite massively higher expenditures here in the U.S., Thailand provides superior care (two of the Top 10 rated Medical Tourism destinations are in Thailand, more than in any other country). While cultural differences in governance can be said to be a large contributor, there seems to be no reason why Americans should spend almost 21 times as much as a Thai on poorer-quality care. For instance, cardiac angioplasty at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok costs around $4,000, while in the United States the cost is routinely 10 times that amount; yet in Bangkok, the hospital staff will greet you at the airport, treat you like a VIP, and put you in a hospital room that would rival many 5-star hotel suites. Another factor is certainly malpractice insurance: Thai doctors spend around $5,000 per year, while American doctors regularly pay upwards of $100,000 per year.

Thailand is a clear example of how simpler regulations, a freer private market, and a pared-down government system are vastly superior to the graft and waste-prone, bloated behemoth of government health care here in the U.S. Perhaps, instead of creating dozens of new departments and thousands of new economy-draining government jobs, the U.S. government should pattern its medical philosophy after that of Thailand.