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01.12.2014 | Research | Ausgabe 1/2014 Open Access

Globalization and Health 1/2014

UK medical tourists in Thailand: they are not who you think they are

Globalization and Health > Ausgabe 1/2014
Thinakorn Noree, Johanna Hanefeld, Richard Smith
Wichtige Hinweise

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1186/​1744-8603-10-29) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

Competing interest

The authors declare that they have no competing of interest.

Authors’ contributions

TN designed and carried out the data collection and analysis for the study with input from JH and RS. JH and TN provided an initial draft based on the data analysed. All authors reviewed and revised the draft.



Travel for medical treatment is an aspect of globalization and health that is comparatively less understood. Little is known about volume, characteristic and motivation of medical tourists, limiting understanding of effects on health systems and patients. Thailand is amongst a handful of countries that have positioned themselves as medical tourism destination. This paper examines in unprecedented detail volume and characteristics of medical tourists who travel from the UK to Thailand for treatment.


As part of a wider medical tourism study, authors gained access to over 4000 patient records from the five largest private hospitals in Thailand. These included information on country of origin, gender, age, arrival month, hospitalization, diagnosis, procedures, length of stay, medical expenditure and type of payment. Patient records were analysed to understand who travels and findings were triangulated with data from the UK International Passenger Survey (IPS).


104,830 medical tourists visited these hospitals in Thailand in 2010. While patients originate all over the world, UK medical tourists represent the largest group amongst Europeans. The majority UK medical tourists (60%) have comparatively small, elective procedures, costing less than USD 500. A significant minority of patients travel for more serious orthopedic and cardiothoracic procedures. Data of individual patient records from Thailand shows a higher number of UK patients traveled to Thailand than indicated by the IPS.


Thailand is attracting a large number of medical tourists including larger numbers of UK patients than previously estimated. However, as many patients travel for comparatively minor procedures treatment may not be their primary motivation for travel. The small but significant proportion of older UK residents traveling for complex procedures may point to challenges within the NHS.
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