Out of the Box|04/11/2011

Bumrungrad’s secret to medical tourism sucess? Fast mover advantage

Bumrungrad International is arguably the poster child of the medical tourism industry

“How did they do it?” As the former marketing director for Bumrungrad International Hospital, I get asked this question a lot.

Bumrungrad International Hospital

Bumrungrad International is arguably the poster child of the medical tourism industry, and if you have ever visited or used the hospital you understand why. It looks like a five star hotel, has the services of a five star hotel, and attracts clients you would see in a five star hotel.

I used to say that Bumrungrad was successful because they had first mover advantage, but when I think about it in retrospect, it was successful because they had fast mover advantage. The first guy out of the blocks does not always win the race; the fastest does.

Bumrungrad positioned itself as a leader by running fast, not necessarily being first. It was not the first JCI accredited hospital. The Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo was. It was certainly not the first hospital to treat overseas patients. Singapore was the dominant medical travel destination in Asia for decades. It was not the first hospital to market in the Middle East. Mayo and Cleveland Clinic were already well established in the Gulf.

Bumrungrad was the fastest in three key areas — quality, leveraging the term medical tourism and services.

The momentum created in these areas positioned Bumrungrad as the dominant medical travel destination it is today. Here are three examples of how we did it.

Quality. Let’s be honest, Thai hospitals are not universally recognized as world leaders in quality. No one knew that more than Singapore, Bumrungrad’s main competitor for regional medical tourism patients and between 2000-2005. Singapore hospitals would say ‘Sure, if you want cheap care, go to Thailand, but if you want quality care, come to us.’ Quality, or better stated, the perceived lack of quality standards and metrics, was Bumrungrad’s Achilles heel.

Enter the Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation. Bumrungrad CEO, Curt Schroeder, was an American hospital administrator and recognized the value and importance of Joint Commission accreditation in the US as a quality indicator (hospitals are not eligible for government and insurance reimbursement without it). So, he saw the opportunity to make Bumrungrad the first JCI accredited hospital in Asia, but he was also fast in getting the word out.

Bumrungrad International Hospital medical tourism hubOvernight, Bumrungrad gained the upper hand in the quality debate.  The hospital took out advertisements, displayed the logo, scheduled a media event, and made it part of the hospital’s branding DNA. Bumrungrad was not the first JCI accredited hospital, but rather the fastest to recognize the importance of JCI accreditation and use it as a marketing tool.

Medical Tourism. Bumrungrad has been featured in just about every major medial outlet there is. Newsweek, 60 Minutes, Time, NPR, New York Times, CNN, FOX, RAI, Der Speigel. They all have run stories on Bumrungrad as a medical tourism destination. in a 2006 article, Time Magazine called Bumrungrad the “marbled-floor mecca of the medical trade that resembles a grand hotel rather than a clinic.” As a marketing director, it really didn’t get any better than that.

Love it or hate it, the term “medical tourism” has become inextricably linked with Bumrungrad. The first time I remember the term being used was in an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Sun, Sea and Surgery. Chances were that if you Google searched anything related to medical tourism between 2001-2006, you were going to get a result that led you to an article about Bumrungrad. It was a virtual land grab, and we grabbed the land the fastest.

I remember speaking at a medical tourism conference in 2004, and Dr Jason Yap, who was then heading Singapore Medicine, was pushing hospitals and the industry-at-large to use the term “medical travel” rather than “medical tourism”. I objected. My argument was simple. Google rules. If this is the term media is using and this is the term web users are searching, then this is where you want to be.

Medical tourism was not something we planned, but like many things in life you have to understand the opportunity when it presents itself. From a seed, medical tourism grew into a tree, and we made sure to water it everyday.

Bumrungrad International HospitalServices. Catering to the needs of an ever growing international patient base challenges your whole delivery model. Coping with different languages, cultures, religions, food requirements and expectations is a Herculean effort and one that Bumrungrad faces every day, every month, every year.

From 2001-2007, the number of Arab patients coming to Bumrungrad exploded from under 5,000 per year to almost 100,000 a year! The biggest challenge for Bumrungrad as an organization was not medical; it was service. How do you make so many different people feel welcome?

There were a lot of things we did to beef up our service levels, but the most important was hiring someone who knew what service delivery really meant. In 2002, the hosital hired a former Hilton International hotel executive to develop our service platform. Edgar Toral transformed our service delivery structure from call centers to airport pick up to food services. Bumrungrad may have looked like a hotel, but he made it feel like one. This not only enhanced our competitiveness; it enhanced our story.

As a consultant, I see hospitals wanting to become players in medical tourism scene, but their best intentions are paralyzed by inaction. An idea turns into a plan that turns into meetings then committees and review boards. This kills initiative, it kills speed to market, and eventually it kills the opportunity itself.

Curt Schroeder, my former boss at Bumrungrad and a mentor, had only one word of advice for me during my tenure as marketing director. Run.

 


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9 Comments

  • Very interesting article. There are so many challenges that the north american system would have to overcome to make so an idea viable.

  • At the forefront, service culture will remain one of the biggest challenges hospitals will face in the future specially dealing with international patients. Fast movers, creative minds, service delivery…all in my mind…all the best Ruben.

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