Club Medical

Medical tourism Thai-style may be just what the doctor ordered. Cheap prices and short waiting lists attract many foreigners – including 18,000 Canadians a year.

John Kenchenten was munching on noodles while vacationing in Bangkok when a filling fell out of one of his teeth. The Port Alberni, B.C., resident called the Vancouver travel agency that had booked his trip and was directed to a nearby hospital in the Thai capital for emergency treatment.

He came away delighted. “I paid less than $10 for an exam and $30 for a new filling,” he says. “The dentist told me I also needed a root canal, and it cost only $175. They did it all right away, and the offices were better equipped than anything I’d seen in Canada. What I saved basically covered the price of a holiday.”

His experience, while totally unplanned, demonstrates some of the reasons medical tourism is booming in this Southeast Asian country. Cheap prices and short waiting lists drew more than a million foreigners – at least 18,000 of them Canadian – to Thailand in 2004 for medical care. Whether you want your teeth whitened, your varicose veins removed or your sex changed, Thai clinics can fill your medical needs while providing a level of pampered luxury you won’t find in Canada.

On a recent trip to Bangkok, I dropped by Samitivej Hospital, one of the best-known facilities serving foreigners. An orchestra was playing as I entered a lobby that looked like it belonged to a five-star hotel – except for the line of wheelchairs at the door.

Sandra Millar, former communications director of Ontario for the Federal PC Party, greeted me. She and her husband came to Thailand several years ago when her husband required surgery and their son, a developer working in Thailand, encouraged them to have the operation done in Bangkok. The surgery was a success, the Millars moved to Bangkok and Sandra became the hospital’s international affairs coordinator.

“Let’s say you wanted a breast enhancement or a facelift,” Millar says. “You’d send me an e-mail outlining your wish list, general health, age and photographs.” She then consults with the appropriate doctors and quotes you a fee. If you decide to book the procedure, Millar helps arrange everything from airport pickups to hospital and hotel rooms.

Next on my list was the Phyathai 2 Hospital. While I waited, I caught up on my e-mails at the wireless computer and switched channels on the plasma TV. Poonna Piyasil, chief of orthopedic surgery at Phyathai, says he’s seeing more and more Canadians tired of long queues for hip and knee replacements fly to Thailand for fast service. A total hip replacement, including doctor’s fees and hospital costs, will set you back about $11,000, but your waiting time will be measured in hours, not months.

“We need a referral from your doctor and your files,” Piyasil says. “But if I admit you today and all is well with our medical tests, we’ll do the operation tomorrow.”

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