The quality of healthcare in China is often questionable. High-net-worth individuals travel to countries and regions beyond mainland China for better care—whether life-saving, preventative, or cosmetic—and even an increasing number of poor people travel abroad for cheaper and higher-quality care. The issue also seems to enter the spotlight again and again. Two years ago, China had a major vaccine scandal. Now, China is in the midst of yet another unfolding vaccine scandal that is keeping parents across the country on edge—and on the lookout for vaccinations abroad. This time, it has come out that two Chinese vaccine manufacturers were selling ineffective DPT (diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus) vaccines.
Medical scandals in the past have coincided with dramatic upticks in Chinese outbound medical tourism
If there’s any question that the currently unfolding scandal will have any implications for Chinese medical tourism, Ctrip reported a staggering 500 percent growth in medical tourism in 2016—the year when the last major vaccine scandal came to light.
Since then, medical tourism has remained a reliable growth sector in Chinese outbound tourism, and Chinese consumers have only gotten more affluent, more well-traveled, and better-versed in the type of medical tourism products available on the global market.
With that in mind, it’s certainly far from unfathomable that 2018’s Chinese vaccine scandal will bring Chinese medical tourism to new heights—and for very unfortunate reasons.
Many worried Chinese parents are already trying to travel to Hong Kong to get effective vaccines for their children
According to Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, a deluge of Chinese parents disheartened by the vaccine scandal are already trying to bring their children to Hong Kong—and beyond—to access vaccinations that actually do what’s advertised.
“I feel a bit ashamed about crossing the border to snap up a vaccine, and I totally understand if Hong Kong people resent us for doing it, but it’s just what I’ve got to do as a mother,” a Shenzhen mother told the paper.
Indeed, easy-to-access countries with well-developed medical tourism facilities like Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand seem like the most likely destinations for many of these potential first-time medical tourists.
Hong Kong has been long-established as a medical tourism destination for Chinese citizens as it has easier access to high-quality Western-produced medications
Unfortunately, clinics abroad can’t necessarily always guarantee better care than in China either. While it’s true that China’s current vaccine scandal is isolated to mainland China, Hong Kong, too, doesn’t have a perfect track record in vaccinations. Earlier this year, Merck’s Gardasil 9 HPV vaccine proved to have been oversold in Hong Kong, leaving some Chinese medical tourists without necessary subsequent doses after the first or second administration.
Whether the supply of alternative vaccines that replace the Chinese-manufactured vaccines embroiled in the scandal will last is anyone’s guess. As the Gardasil 9 debacle proved, ramping up production in face of medical tourism-fueled demand is easier said than done.
There’s of course also the risk that medical tourism destinations may feel compelled to ration vaccine supply for the local population, similar to what many countries decided to do after Chinese travelers started buying up infant milk formula following the 2008 Chinese milk scandal.
While it’s unclear exactly how things will unfold, the one thing that’s clear is that the ongoing scandal will only further fuel Chinese medical tourism growth. Hopefully, medical tourism will avoid disappointing Chinese parents the same way domestic healthcare providers did.