For many Ethiopians, medical tourism might have been a luxury a decade ago, but it has now become a reality for thousands. With scarce forex resources to spend it in the midst of an often vulnerable and broken medical care at home, many people continue to venture outside of the nation, to places such as India and Thailand looking for private medical care that is often a lofty dream within Ethiopia.
In the last few years, Thailand has become the favorite of many, forcing Ethiopian Airlines to accommodate the growing demands and many agents opening shop within the capital to take advantage of the new phenomena.
Some Thailand based hospitals are now building an advertisement strategy to lure more local customers to their premises as the Asian nation decides to relax the visa requirements of Ethiopian citizens who travel to the country for a slew of issues, including medical tourism, business and as a tourist.
"We send dozens of patients weekly, and we can help them book with all kinds of medical centers, hotels, taxis and translators," an agent, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Reporter. "The ones who travel to Thailand seem to have more resources to spend than those heading to India. However, the cost of Thailand continues to rise and the interests of patients to travel there have only grown accordingly."
Within Bangkok, Bumrungrad International Hospital is located inside luxury-like hotel buildings with international restaurants of Japanese and Indian cuisines and Ethiopians nearby. It is also noted for offering personalized care. It has been expanding since it started almost 50 years ago and now has multilingual interpreters of many languages, including Amharic, Oromiffa and Tigrigna and Ethiopian nurses.
That personal touch has made it the most desired but costly hospital for those coming from Ethiopia.
"This place is a miracle, it has saved my mother's life and the medical doctors are second-to-none," said Henok Teferi as he sipped a latte purchased from Starbucks. He was accompanying his mother from Addis Ababa. "I have also done my own medical check-up and while the price has significantly gone up, I take to heart the fact that, it's a private business, not the subsidized medical care, we are otherwise not entitled to (in Thailand)".
His father is also adamant that the hospital and Thailand in general has been a great experience for the family.
"Thailand is a wonderful society. It is safe and the hospitals are exceptionally wonderful and the staff is equally good. It has given us better health and I will continue to sing its praises," he said.
"I have made many of my friends try it and we have all become a passionate ambassador of Thailand's success as a medical success story in the world," he added.
With newfound fame among international patients, the hospital has almost doubled its fees in the last few years. For instance, the price for basic medical check-up has increased two-folds but that has not stopped anyone from coming to it.
Along with its sizable African clienteles, Thailand also hosts 7growing patients from the Gulf nations and most companies offer generous insurance policy for its employees and have come to choose Thailand's many hospitals for their medical care and needs.
According to the Ministry of Public Health in Thailand, there are now 2.5 million medical tourists to the nation, topping India, which was for long the most favorite destination.
For Negus Alemu, who has been suffering from all kinds of health setbacks, including stomach cancer, he has been constantly traveling to Thailand. With ample hospitality that are affordable and few Ethiopian restaurants nearby, for him, the Thailand hospital has been rewarding.
"I have been coming here for two years and since then, I am forced to come every three month and while the financial cost has been a burden to me and my family, it's a blessing in disguise," he said
Within Thailand, beside Bumrungrad Hospital, which is the biggest hospital in Southeast Asia and perhaps its busiest, there are other choices with multiple standards, including Bangkok, Samitivej and Phyathai hospitals, catering to those looking for affordable medical care. Most offer good quality care which is per-standard of the medical care that is afforded to the locals free of charge, however, many of the Thai people complain of long waiting lineups that they are forced to endure, unlike the private hospitals.
At Bangkok hospital, an equivalent of a 200 birr ride from Bumrungrad, is an equally active hospital with ample international clienteles. It's more diverse and has many, from the East African nations, including those from Ethiopia, Kenya and Somaliland.
Muftafa Ahmed is from Dire Dawa and he also came looking for a miracle for his illness, including life-long diabetes and others.
Within Ethiopia, he was prescribed a slew of medicines and saw many doctors but each finding contradicted each other and was advised to head to Thailand from a friend, whose family has been coming here for eon.
"I am not a man of wealth; I have little resources but I sold much so I could come here. I am happy I did. While my visit has not concluded, I am confident, I am receiving the best medical care there is.".
Like many of the Ethiopian patients, he has been able to secure affordable and clean accommodations nearby, according to his budget and ample choice of food that is rock bottom cheap.
"I have been in Thailand for a week and excluding my plane ticket, I have paid just over USD 2000. While that might be out of reach for many people (in Ethiopia), it has given me hope that I will be cured and head back home a happy man. Thailand has given many of us to hope, in its medical breakthrough and I am a testament to that hope."
Many of the people The Reporter spoke to complained about the lack of forex afforded to them in Ethiopia and many are even forced to hide their hard-earned money they bought at an exaggerated rate in the black market at Bole International Airport from being confiscated as authorities sees it as an illegal act.
"That is a very unnecessary burden and a catch-22 for many. If there is no adequate medical facility (in Ethiopia), the government should take note of that and relax that unfair harassment. If there were good medical care at home, we would not be spending our resources elsewhere. We are just ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. We have no choice, but to go elsewhere," Mustafa concluded.