Medical tourism is an enormous industry that only continues growing—mostly as a result of substantial Chinese demand for healthcare services that are perceived as superior to what can be enjoyed in China. Mistrust toward the quality of domestic health care providers makes for an excellent business opportunity: opening satellite clinics and hospitals of world-renowned hospitals inside China.

However, tight government regulations make any such moves not only difficult but also expensive and risky. Going from concept to actual implementation is likely to take years, a big team of legal counsels, and a substantial budget. Even with those investments, the risk of being refused entry to China’s potentially extremely lucrative premium healthcare market remains.

Moves into China’s healthcare market are expensive and risky

Instead, Chinese healthcare-seekers are looking beyond China’s borders to safeguard their health, leading to what’s a booming medical tourism industry. In fact, a Ctrip report on medical tourism identified a staggering 500 percent growth of Chinese medical tourism in 2016—and the trend toward seeking healthcare abroad is continuing throughout 2017.

Medical tourism, of course, can take many shapes. For some, it means traveling abroad for comprehensive checkups, such as advanced cancer screenings and other non-urgent healthcare services. For others, it can mean going to South Korea or Brazil for cosmetic surgery. Treatments for cancer and other chronic diseases that require long stays at overseas hospitals are also increasingly common, and even China’s poor are looking overseas for healthcare that isn’t only more affordable, but also superior to the lackluster health services found outside China’s major cities.

Medical tourism is a major travel trend that transcends wealth

Demand for medical tourism is, contrary to popular belief, not exclusive to China’s wealthy—but rather a major travel trend that motivates Chinese consumers to travel overseas.

How long the explosive growth of medical tourism will be sustained is largely dependent on Chinese government policy that at present keep foreign ventures into the domestic healthcare industry at bay.

Taiwanese Landseed International Hospital, the first foreign-owned hospital to enter the Chinese market, was only successful in doing so after a series of delays and obtaining documents with 150 government seals—clearly illustrating the difficulty of even remotely competing with Chinese medical tourism.

One HOSPITAL needed 150 government seals required to open a location in China

Mayo Clinic, meanwhile, is taking a different approach to the Chinese market. In place of establishing clinics on hospitals on its own, it’s established what it calls the Mayo Clinic Care Network, which brings overseas hospitals into its fold. In China, so far only one hospital has joined the network, but others are likely to follow. At the same time, Mayo Clinic has become a major destination for Chinese medical tourists as it collaborates with “door-to-door” services that bring Chinese tourists to its healthcare professionals with everything travel-related fully taken care of.

While it remains unclear if things will change anytime soon, a number of recent moves into China’s healthcare industry by overseas operators could indicate that China is gradually opening up to the idea of having more international healthcare providers in the country. The largest move so far is by Singapore-based Fullerton Healthcare, which recently secured an 800 million yuan ($121 million) investment from Chinese Ping An Insurance to be used for establishing 100 clinics across China’s first-tier cities.

Chinese investments into overseas healthcare providers indicate that things may be about to change

For those who are betting on the continued growth of Chinese medical tourism, there are few reasons to ring any alarms about future opportunities in the Chinese medical tourism market. While booming demand for premium healthcare services in China is driving more companies to attempt entering the market, notoriously slow and difficult bureaucracy will make any such attempts take years to come to fruition.

And even then, China’s rising demand for healthcare services and customer preferences toward overseas care will likely counterbalance increased competition from overseas healthcare companies operating on Chinese soil.

In other words, the future looks bright for medical tourism in China—and certainly also bright for those providers who manage to cut through the red tape and establish local operations inside China.

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