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Bhutanese flock to Bangkok for medical tourism

Sunday, 10 March 20130 comments

An increasing number of Bhutanese mothers prefer to give birth to their babies in Thailand as it is cleaner, safer and reliable, despite the expense
"We cater to international patients, and we have a spokesperson and interpreters for many countries, including Bhutan, the Middle East, and all South Asian neighbouring countries."
Wangmo was worried, anxious and obsessed as she had just another two months to deliver her first baby, but her fears were allayed when she and her husband decided they would rather choose to deliver in Thailand than in Bhutan.

"I am not very comfortable with the medical facilities in Bhutan, I am not saying its bad, the doctors are well-trained, but you never know if you would have complications," she said. In Bhutan, mothers shared rooms in the hospital, the doctors cannot be at their beck and call, proper medical infrastructure is lacking and the delivery procedure is very painful as hospitals there do not provide epidural injection. With only five gynaecologists in the country, Bhutan's infant mortality rate is 40.1 per 1,000 live births, and maternal mortality rate is 146 per 100,000 live births, according to the government's recent state of the nation report for 2013. About 12,000 babies are born in the country every year. Deliveries can happen anytime, and what if the doctors are not around and something happens, Wangmo said, adding, "it's just too risky". Incidences of jaundice after birth are also fairly common in Bhutan.

As against this, hospitals in Bangkok boast a wide range of delivery options, including normal, with epidural (a pain-relieving injection), which makes delivery almost painless, water birth and C-section. Hospitals in Bhutan, however, offer all kinds of services for free. In comparison, in Bangkok delivery fees range from Bt45,900 to Bt73,000 depending on whether it is normal, normal with epidural, or C-section. Would-be mothers can seek a single room and constant nursing in Bangkok, on top of advice on proper food and health habits before and after delivery.
An increasing number of Bhutanese mothers are choosing to deliver their babies in Bangkok, and Phyathai is the most popular for Bhutanese. Since 2003, some 500-600 Bhutanese babies have been born in Phyathai Hospital.

Norachan Malakul, a senior international marketing manager with the private hospital, said the number is increasing both at Phyathai and other hospitals in Bangkok given their popularity among foreign patients, from Bhutan and other countries. 

For Bhutanese clients, the hospital has a Bhutanese relations officer, Sonam Phuntsho. After coming to Bangkok for a study, he has assisted Bhutanese visiting Bangkok for medical treatment for the past seven years.

"I can speak Thai pretty well, and I cater not only to Bhutanese but all international patients," Sonam Phuntsho said.

His presence is a factor that draws Bhutanese patients to this hospital, including Wangmo and her husband Tobden.

Last week, the couple said they chose Bangkok because doctors are readily available, the safety of the child and mother is ensured because all facilities are in place. Holding hands, they showed their three-year toddler, who was also born in Bangkok.

"We chose Bangkok also because of the variety of baby stuffs here. In Bhutan, you don't get all-sized diapers," Wangmo said. The couple had spent about Bt72,000 for delivery, Bt30,000 for living expenses and another Bt50,000 for travel.

Dechen is a repeat patient. "It was amazing, my whole body opened up and it was almost painless," she recalled her experience a few years ago. After the delivery, she went to the US and got pregnant again. She decided to return to Bangkok though facilities in the US are comparatively better. Bangkok is like a hub, she said. Given the proximity to Bhutan, her families can be here. Opting for the C-section, she believed the doctor's word that there will minimal incision and the tear heals faster.

Dechen has spent US$5,000 (about Bt150,000) for delivery and travel expenses. Other expecting mothers here are also spending a huge sum, as they usually have to wait for two weeks for delivery and leave a week after the delivery.

Aside from child birth, Bhutanese also seek medical services here for complaints like stomach ulcers, cancer, hair transplant, gall stone surgery, sore throat, red eye and backache. As Thailand is promoting medical tourism, private hospitals like Phyathai, Bumrungrad and Samitivej are prospering.

Karma, a corporate employee in Bhutan said she took her grandfather to Bangkok as he suffered from severe backache, because no matter how many times he visited the hospital in Bhutan, the complications never stopped. Another Bhutanese, Yeshey, who is planning her wedding this year, said she had started saving money so she could also deliver her baby in Bangkok.

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