News & Features


Are Japanese Interested in Outbound Medical Tourism?

Medical tourism—which takes in anyone who crosses international borders to receive medical care—is a very healthy industry. Patients Beyond Borders believes the market is worth between US$24 and $40 billion, based on approximately eight million cross-border patients worldwide spending an average of US$3,000 to $5,000 per visit. Professor Helmut Wachowiak, an expert on tourism management at the International University of Applied Sciences at Bad Honnef in Germany, says the market is already worth $40 billion to $60 billion, and is growing at about 20 percent a year.

A 2012 poll of 18,731 adults in 24 countries by global strategic research firm Ipsos Public Affairs found at least a third of consumers in every country were open to the idea of medical tourism, and 18 percent would seriously consider it. “The concept of medical tourism is well accepted in many countries,” noted senior vice president Nicolas Boyon of Ipsos in a widely reported November 2012 interview, “with the exception of Japan.”

So why is Japan different? The standard comeback will be that the country boasts close to the lowest per capita healthcare costs among developed nations—and a 30 percent co-pay rate—and its population is considered the healthiest on the planet. Lifestyle factors such as low rates of obesity and violence help immensely, but the widespread accessibility of world-class healthcare—with 185,000 hospitals, clinics and dentists to choose from—matters just as much. And the country’s universal healthcare system covers everyone for medical and dental care and medication.

The World Health Organization offers up some vital statistics on the country: life expectancy in Japan averages 83 years, infant mortality rates are just 3 per 1,000 live births, health spending stands at 8 percent of GDP, and the percentage of health expenditures on the private side is 18 percent. There are also 21 doctors for every 10,000 residents.

That might lead some to believe that the Japanese have no reason to follow the outbound medical tourism flag. Two major factors indicate otherwise, particularly if the treatment they would be receiving involves elective procedures of some kind. The first is that some elective procedures tend to be very pricy when performed within Japan’s borders. The second is that the use of some newer technologies is not reimbursed through insurance here.

A dental implant procedure in Japan, for example, runs between US$4,000 and $5,000. The same procedure in Malaysia costs just US$1,500 to $3,000. Throw in a vacation to properly recuperate, and the medical tourist still comes out far ahead.

If they choose to stay in Japan for treatment, patients often end up paying significantly more because the National Health Insurance (NHI) system restricts their options. Example: A 50-year-old patient needing arthroscopic back surgery discovered that the NHI scheme would only reimburse him for open back surgery. He ended up traveling to a specialist 500 km away in Nagoya and paying over ¥1.5 million for the arthroscopic procedure, cutting his recovery time from several months to a couple of days and suffering a lot less physical pain but more on the financial side.

Behind the StoryAccording to Michael Bobrove, the CEO and founder of HealthyIM, there is a lot more to the medical tourism story. An innovative hospital and clinic search and review portal covering 200,000 medical facilities in Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore, HealthyIM is designed to help locals and medical travelers find the right places for diagnosis and treatment. Bobrove has spent twenty years as an executive in medical devices and pharmaceuticals in Asia, and was the president of Nihon Medrad K.K. He regularly gives presentations on medical tourism all over the world.

“To gauge interest in medical tourism, we posed ten questions about the option in a July 2013 online survey sent to 200 of HealthyIM’s registered Japanese users,” Bobrove says. “What we found was both intriguing and encouraging. None of the 54 respondents had ever tried medical tourism. The question, ‘Did you know that you can get equal or better healthcare at a lower price outside of Japan?’ revealed one big reason for that when an overwhelming 74 percent said they had no idea.”

When asked if they’d be willing to try medical tourism, 70 percent said yes, citing interest in procedures such as dental implants and whitening, health checks, aesthetics/spa treatments and relaxation procedures. More crucially, 90 percent wanted to hear more about medical tourism.

The Right AppealThe Japanese have a well-deserved reputation for being discerning consumers when it comes to both goods and services. When their health is involved, they tend to be even more cautious. They want a place where Japanese is spoken, for example, and that is both safe and inexpensive. Favorable reviews from other Japanese patients also rank high, and they’d prefer to purchase all-inclusive medical tourism packages.

Hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities seeking to attract the well-heeled yet elusive Japanese consumer will have to keep several factors in mind. One is to focus on procedures of interest. Another is to generate reliable information on safety, pricing, Japanese patient experiences and associated medical and resort facilities. The possibility of visiting an exotic locale is also highly appealing to Japanese consumers.

Since a lack of awareness is a primary roadblock, a third step is to prepare materials in Japanese. Lastly, these medical facilities have to promote themselves in the Japanese market.

“Medical and wellness providers have to pose one ultimate question to patients: Would you recommend your medical facility or service to a friend or colleague, and why?” HealthyIM’s Bobrove advises. “The methodology of ‘the ultimate question’ has become standard in most industries, with an indisputable impact on improving customer satisfaction. A satisfied patient is your greatest promoter.”