21 August 2019
A growing number of wealthy Chinese are going abroad for expensive medical treatment because they consider the quality of care and service at home inadequate. Photo: AFP
A growing number of wealthy Chinese are going abroad for expensive medical treatment because they consider the quality of care and service at home inadequate. Photo: AFP

Wealthy mainlanders seek medical treatment abroad

In 2009, Mr. Mou, a 57-year-old millionaire, was told by his doctor that he had no more than two years to live – his stomach cancer was at an advanced stage and surgery was useless.

Unwilling to accept the “death sentence”, Mou flew to the United States for an operation that saved his life. Early this year his daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went directly to the US, believing that the advanced technology and personal treatment would be the best way to avoid disfigurement.

The Mous are two of a growing number of wealthy mainlanders going abroad for expensive medical treatment because they consider the quality of care and service at home inadequate.

They are part of a global boom in medical tourism. In a recent report, the Stanford Research Institute said that, over the next five years, “wellness” tourism will grow by 9.9 percent a year, nearly twice the rate for global tourism. This includes hospitals, dental clinics and cosmetic surgery, as well as yoga, spa, meditation and other health holidays.

It said that, by 2017, it will reach US$678.5 billion, 16 percent of all tourism revenues. Middle-aged, educated and wealthy, the tourists spend 130 percent more than the average tourist.

The favored destinations of the mainlanders for treatment are the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Retired NBA basketball star Yao Ming went to the Houston Medical Center to undergo several operations, while Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang chose the Wellington Hospital in London.

Also on the list is the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which treated Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the King of Jordan and Chinese entrepreneurs Feng Lun and Pan Shiyi.

Betting on this growing market, venture capitalist Sequoia Capital China on June 15 signed a contract to invest 50 million yuan (US$8.1 million) in Beijing Saint Lucia Consulting Co. Ltd. On its website, it describes itself as “the largest Chinese provider of guidance on overseas medical care to serve Chinese patients suffering from serious diseases such as cancer”.

“Since its foundation in 2010, our team has provided Chinese corporate executives and the wealthy elite and their families with highly personal medical tourism facilitation services, expert translation and informed advice on overseas medical treatment,” it said. It sends employees to accompany patients during their journey to receive treatment, helping them plan their travel, look after medical records and get approval from foreign hospitals.

In 2011, it became a member of the US-based Medical Tourism Association, a global non-profit association for the medical tourism and “international patient” industries.

It has signed contracts with major hospitals in the US, Britain, South Korea and Singapore, including the Massachusetts General Hospital and Mayo Clinic in the US and Wellington Hospital and Royal Brompton Hospital in Britain.

Mayo Clinic said the number of Chinese patients going there has increased from 30 to about 200 over the past five years.

“The demand for overseas medical services will be great in the future,” said Zhou Kui, a partner at Sequoia Capital.

Companies like this have sprung up in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Their customers are wealthy entrepreneurs, senior officials, managers of state companies, and sports and entertainment stars.

Cai Qiang, founder of Saint Lucia, said 80 percent of those seeking treatment abroad suffered from cancer, 10 percent from heart conditions and 10 percent diseases of the nervous system. “Originally, those who went were in late-stage cancer. Now more and more are going in the early stage to seek treatment in the world’s best hospitals.”

Chinese are not only going for operations but treatment of chronic illnesses, rehabilitation, check-ups and nutrition and health care.

“The US offers the best treatment. It is also the most expensive,” said Cai. “The average treatment for cancer costs US$150,000, to be paid in stages. But, if you just go for the key treatment, the costs can be controlled – for example, lung cancer treatment for US$15,000,” he said.

Another way to cut costs is to have the tests and diagnosis abroad and return to China for the final operation at a designated hospital.

Cancer survival rates in China and developed countries are widely different. In China, each year 3.5 million people are diagnosed with the disease and 2.5 million die of it. According to figures from the American Cancer Society, 45 percent of cancer survivors are over 70, while only 5 percent die before they are 40. Sixty-four percent have survived for at least five years and 15 percent have lived for more than 20 years.

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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