Increasingly, more Asian countries are upping their game in drawing medical tourists in, and Taiwan is no exception to this. Priya Kulasagaran finds out what one of the region’s best healthcare systems has to offer
With its picturesque island landscapes and vibrant, progressive cities, it is not hard to see why Taiwan is a popular travel destination. While Malaysians have always been travelling to Taiwan, these numbers have further increased in recent years. According to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau in Kuala Lumpur, the number of Malaysian visitors to the island state in the first half of this year was 256,703 — an increase from 215,354 people in the same period last year. Taiwan was also ranked the seventh most popular non-OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) country among Muslim tourists worldwide in the Mastercard-Crescentrating Muslim Global Travel Index 2017.
In past decade or so, Taiwan has also been steadily focusing on marketing its healthcare services to foreigners around the world. Babs Chang, a project manager with the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (Taitra), says this was sparked by a government policy that was introduced in 2009. “We were already receiving patients from overseas seeking treatment in Taiwan before this, but that policy helped us make a concentrated effort in promoting Taiwanese healthcare to the world. It was at that point we realised that we should be sharing our high-quality health services with others, to benefit more people,” she said.
Chang was in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, to manage a Taiwan health industry delegation to Southeast Asia. She shared that part of what ensures Taiwan’s standards in healthcare is its attention to continuous quality assessments. The country established a rigourous hospital accreditation system in 1978, and was the fourth country in Asia to conduct external quality assessments of its medical system.
“Compared with international medical services, Taiwan’s medical services are outstanding,” said Chang. “Out of 200 of the largest hospitals in the world, 14 are in Taiwan. As of April this year, 17 hospitals in Taiwan, including primary clinics and medical centres, have been approved by the Joint Commission International (JCI) – the JCI is an international organisation that monitors healthcare systems worldwide, and it is not easy to get approval from them.”
Perhaps another testament as to the expertise available in Taiwan is reflected in how its medical training is sought after by other countries. For example, statistics indicate that in South Korea, a country well known for plastic and reconstructive surgery, one of every four physicians has been trained in Taiwanese hospitals.
Cutting-edge yet affordable treatment
Already a renowned name in the technology sector, Taiwan’s healthcare facilities are also at the forefront of implementing innovative treatment and state-of-the-art medical equipment. Most recently, the country has implemented a ‘smart card’ system which stores all of a patient’s medical information so as to make case referrals and hospital shifting a much smoother experience.
It pays to note that pushing the boundaries of medicine has been a long-standing endeavour in the country. In 1979, the National Taiwan University Hospital (NTUH) performed the first successful separation of conjoined twins in Asia, and only the fourth medical institution in the world to do so. NTUH was also the site of Asia’s first kidney transplant way back in 1968. Since then, the hospital has completed 1,000 such procedures (as of 2013), with over a third of surgeries involving live donors. The hospital is also one of the country’s leading lung transplant centres, boasting a survival rate of 51%.
Dr Cherng-Jye Jeng, who led the Taiwan’s health industry mission to Southeast Asia, explained that such transplant procedures are now seen as the norm rather than radical and experimental surgeries. “I think part of the reason is that we seem to have more medical specialists than general practitioners!” he said. “Kidney, lung, heart and even pancreas transplants are relatively common procedures. Earlier this year, in my hospital (the Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital in Taipei), we managed to transplant a whole new forearm for a patient who lost his limb in an injury. A month later, he could already hold his keys, and even play mahjong! I think that’s just one example of what our healthcare system has to offer.”
Dr Jeng added that despite the highly specialised nature of such procedures, patients are still able to keep their wallets relatively healthy as well. “If we’re talking about some of the more common surgeries, such as hysterectomies, knee and joint replacements, or hip transplants, the cost is about half if not one third of what you may pay in Singapore. So I think the pricing is quite competitive for Malaysians,” he said.
The reason why Taiwan is able to keep its costs low is due to the structure of its healthcare system as a whole.
The country has one of the oldest government-administered, insurance-based national health services in Asia, and one of the few in the region that provides universal coverage. Established in 1995, the single-payer model health insurance programme is now managed by the National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) and covers 99% of the country’s population. The system is notable for comparatively low costs, comprehensive benefits, short waiting times, and completely free access to doctors, clinics and hospitals of the patients’ choice. This single-payer structure of the Taiwanese system enables it to set and regulate fees, as well as impose a global budget, helping the NHIA to control costs overall — even for foreigners.
Dr Jeng offers an alternative reason as to why the Taiwanese healthcare industry keeps its costs as low as possible: “we emphasise saving lives over earning money”.
“We emphasise the needs of patients, that’s what I believe is Taiwan’s motivation of moving forward with our achievements,” said Dr Jeng. “You can say we have good achievements in surgical tech, but we also emphasise humanity, even at the beginning of medical training. As a professor, I usually tell my students that they are treating the patient, not just the disease. We can’t just blindly determine one sort of ‘final’ treatment without thinking about the patient’s needs and quality of life. As doctors, we occasionally can cure the disease, we can usually improve the condition, but always we have to relief patients’ anxieties and give them hope. That’s why we want to promote our healthcare to others as well — we want to give hope to more patients outside just our country.”