The high-growth medical tourism industry is estimated at US$100 billion by the year 2012. This is propelled by globalization and the increasing healthcare costs in developed countries, including USA. By then 500,000 Americans are expected to travel abroad for healthcare. These millions of medical tourists will travel to more than 30 countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America and Africa.

In Asia the most popular destinations are Singapore, India, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Thailand is reputable for cosmetic surgery especially medical tourists from Western Europe. Singapore attracts mainly medical tourists seeking for more complex procedures and world-class healthcare facilities and quality. India is another option and has a lower cost advantage.

The numbers of medical travelers to Singapore has declined because of the economic downturn. The sharpest decline is from Indonesia but this is compensated by more patients arriving from the Middle-East, Vietnam and Russia. The private hospitals are affected most and may continue to see declining medical tourists. Other countries offering medical services are also getting fewer patients.

The medical tourism industry in Thailand is still robust and is a very popular destination for tourists in general. Its medical costs are lower than Singapore and about one-fifth the cost of USA.

Malaysia is fast catching up with its neighbours and the government is promoting medical tourism aggressively. Among other measures, it has extended the visa period for medical tourists to 6 months from just one month. It is now attracting more medical tourists from Vietnam and Cambodia.

India is one of the first few countries in Asia to promote medical tourism and remain a sought-after destination for low cost and high quality healthcare services. Its cardiovascular and orthopaedic procedures are about one-tenth the cost of similar surgeries in the US.

Taiwan offers high quality and competitively priced healthcare services but is not as aggressive in promoting it. Its main target market is China, which makes sense as its culture and language are similar.

Korea has set a target of 100,000 international patients by 2012 and is actively promoting it as a medical tourism destination.

Which Asian country will lead in this fast growing medical tourism industry will depend not just on cost, quality and reputation. Other factors include ease of travel, communication, infrastructure, and the people that will make it a complete package.