Hot! Medical Malpractice in Thailand: Patient Rights in the Medical Tourism Industry

by Jason Armbrecht

Little did Margaret Richter know that the night she assisted her sick husband onto the flight to Bangkok would be the last she would ever see him alive. She stayed with her husband Roy to the last possible moment, embracing him prior to his boarding the 22 hour flight to Thailand . During the embrace, noticing how stiff and hollow his body felt, she whispered in his ear that everything would be okay and he would receive the treatment he needed in the Thai hospital. Her husband’s once powerful frame now looked bent and reed-like as he entered the airplane ramp among the throng of tourists, holiday makers, and beach goers. The 10,000 mile trip had a completely different significance for them. Throughout much of her life, Margaret’s husband Roy was the strong one in their marriage but roles had reversed. Now Margaret was the caretaker of the family, juggling bills, medicines, work and care of their teenage son. Although a successful restaurateur, Roy was one of several million Americans that fell through the cracks of the American health care system. The family was not destitute, far from it. However, due to a pre-existing medical condition, a sluggish economy and the prohibitory expense involved in maintaining health insurance, the couple had opted for medical treatment abroad.

Margaret and Roy had both watched a TV documentary about an international hospital in Thailand which advertised quality health care as a safe and economical alternative for medical care in their own country. Former hospital patients returning to the US gushed with praise about the high level of care and the professionalism of the Thai doctors and staff. Digging further, she found the hospital’s sleek website and impressive credentials. Soon thereafter, Margaret contacted the hospital to arrange appointments with a specialist and confirmed arrangements for the trip to Thailand .

Now some 2 years later, Margaret enlisted the services of a Thailand lawyer and was in a Thai courtroom giving testimony regarding how she learned of her husband’s death, the result of a series of botched medical procedures at the hospital she had placed so much faith in, caused by errors that the supposedly qualified medical personnel should never have let happened.

Behind the Medical Tourism Boom

Bangkok hospitals have undergone an image revolution that is most apparent in their decor. Along with orderly rows of plastic seating and ubiquitous stainless steel, there are Starbucks and Burger King outlets. Patients gaze at LCD screens showing CNN and there are life-sized cardboard cutout signs advertising the latest procedures, a nip and a cut here, or perhaps a pre-cancer screening at a special discount rate. In the more upscale hospitals, service resembles a first class hotel. Private rooms are carefully decorated with pastels and the bathrooms have brass fixtures and hairdryers.

Medicine in Thailand is big business and the medical and hospitality business have formed a synergy in the field ironically termed “medical tourism,” a pastime that combines a vacation with a medical procedure or operation.

While in years past this medical tourism phenomenon was mainly the domain of those traveling to another country strictly on the basis of need or quality of care, today’s medical tourists are more often guided by price and as such, are traveling in increasing numbers to Thailand . Considering the ease of travel provided by modern passenger jets, the allure of recovery in an exotic locale, the 5-star level accommodations offered at some of the private Thai hospitals, and medical tour companies that will plan everything from your doctor visits to tour tickets, it’s easy to see why millions of people from around the world are booking appointments with Thai doctors and specialists.

In 2004, one of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s main initiatives was a plan to make Thailand a “medical hub” by using government money and resources to promote a state of the art private healthcare system that would be attractive to foreign patients. The plan has worked, bringing in an estimated 50 billion baht per year. While Thailand has been a popular destination for Americans seeking low cost surgery, and Canadians and Brits looking to cut wait times, an increasing number of patients from the Middle East are making the pilgrimage to Thailand for treatment. Post 9/11 visa restrictions have kept many in the region from traveling West for care and are now choosing Thailand , influenced in part by the efforts of the newly opened Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) office in Dubai.

Thailand hospitals’ massive marketing efforts include news documentaries on Western TV, online videos and websites, and flashy brochures. The patients and their families who have not been satisfied, due to a botched operation or procedure, do not receive the same air time. Another area that gets less than stellar coverage is the ability of aggrieved patients and families to obtain redress for personal injury with the assistance of a Thailand lawyer in a legal system that bears little resemblance to what a medical tourist may be used to at home.

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