Come winter and Thimphu along with other major urban areas empties out a part of its population.
A large portion heads down to the Indian plains or to Nepal for mainly pilgrimage. We all know about this, and the numbers have been documented and talked about especially in relation to our rupee shortage issues.
At the same time, there is a growing section of urban travelers that head to Bangkok. In most cases, the travelers have to make use of their annual individual quota of USD that is changed for the Thai Bhat.
When added up, the outflow of not only Bhutanese money but more importantly our convertible currency is staggering and growing every year.
The large majority of these travelers are medical tourists whose primary aim to give birth and undertake other medical procedures.
It is often the absence of even basic medical facilities or services that makes families head out to Bangkok where they end up spending far more on hotels, food, entertainment, transport and shopping.
A big and expensive segment of medical travelers would be mothers about to give birth. While we do have facilities to give birth, our medical system lacks the option of giving painless birth through an injection. There is also a lack of confidence to handle more complicated birth issues or if there is some unexpected emergency.
Another major health segment is doing the occasional all body health checkups. Now this part is even more amazing because the hospital in Thimphu has all the facilities for doing such checkups, but no system to offer it is a package.
Bhutan’s Bangkok syndrome essentially is about the inability of Bhutan’s medical system to adapt and even capitalize on its rapidly growing and demanding middle class. Nobody is asking for privatizing the medical system that provides much benefit to all sections of society.
However, it is high time to re-evaluate our medical system given the emergence of a middle class that wants better service and is also willing to pay. At the same time such a re-evaluation would also help address the growing medical expenses of the country’s health system every year. It would also play an important role in controlling the outflow of convertible currency and retaining money within Bhutan.
The government could send a team to Bangkok to study the special facilities offered by the hospitals there and see what can be offered in Thimphu for a price. This would save millions of dollars every year as many people would not opt to travel out when the very same facilities and services are available back home.
The element of payment for certain service oriented medical packages would also make the medical profession more attractive for doctors, nurses and health professionals. Off hour clinics are already playing an important part in earning revenue for both the government and doctors.
In the longer run, it may be a good idea to explore the option of having medical tourism in Bhutan. The combination of high quality medical care and a clean and green environment is an alternative to the current Bangkok formula of health and shopping.
At the very least, even if there is no interest or capability for medical tourism, we can at least tweak our current medical system so that all sides are happy and valuable foreign exchange is retained within Bhutan.