10 important things expats need to know about healthcare in Thailand

By Lee, 09 March, 2017

With its glorious weather, white sandy beaches, crystal-clear waters, colorful cuisine and a comparatively low cost of living, Thailand is top of the list for many expats who dream of a more exciting or exotic lifestyle. Whether they’re escaping the 9–5 back home or looking for new career opportunities, it’s no surprise that this country is a popular destination.

If you are thinking of relocating to Thailand to live and work, here are 10 things you might want to know about accessing healthcare before you make the move.

1. Universal Coverage Scheme

In 2000, Thailand was in a healthcare crisis. More than 17,000 children under five died (most from easily preventable infectious diseases) and about 20 percent of Thai homes fell into poverty due to the cost of healthcare. Most of the Thai population had inadequate insurance, and about 25 percent had no health insurance at all. In response to the growing need for affordable, good quality healthcare, Thailand introduced the Universal Coverage Scheme (UCS) in 2001. The scheme provides inpatient, outpatient and emergency healthcare to residents across Thailand, based on their individual needs. The UCS now covers 50 million people (out of a population of approximately 68 million).

2. Public healthcare

Thailand’s public sector is made up of about 1,000 hospitals and 9,000 medical clinics, with most residents being able to easily access a medical facility. While expats are not able to register for the UCS, they can still make use of public healthcare services. In cities like Bangkok, these are of a high quality – but in more rural parts of Thailand, the standard might not match Western standards. Non-UCS patients have to pay an out-of-pocket fee for treatment, but this is generally much less than they would pay in the UK or US.

3. Private healthcare

Though private cover is not a requirement for expats living in Thailand, many choose to take out personal health insurance and make use of private facilities and services. This is a popular option because private healthcare facilities usually have shorter waiting times, a higher standard of service, and a more comfortable environment. Having private medical insurance can also mean that patients do not have to pay out-of-pocket expenses. Ten percent of the 68 million people living in Thailand have private medical cover, perhaps due to rising prosperity in the country.

4. Costs

Fees for Thailand’s hospitals are well-structured, which means patients do not have to worry about unwelcome surprises when it comes to the cost of their medical treatment. In public hospitals, the price of healthcare is substantially less than in Western countries. A specialist consultation, for example, might cost US $15 in Thailand, while it could cost upwards of $125 in the US. An MRI scan is about $250 – a third of what it would cost in the UK or US. The UCS is jointly funded by the government and employee tax deductions from salaries. In 2011, the average person paid just $80 towards healthcare.

5. Reputation

Many foreign nationals choose to travel to Thailand to receive affordable and high-quality healthcare and medical treatments. In cities like Bangkok, private facilities are particularly renowned for their capabilities in medical procedures like cosmetic surgery, corrective eye surgery and dentistry. Thailand is also starting to develop a reputation for excellence in advanced treatments like heart surgery and IVF. Some private healthcare facilities even offer packages for people who are traveling to Bangkok specifically for medical treatment.

6. General practitioners and specialists

A quirk of Thailand’s healthcare system is that the majority of doctors are specialists. This is problematic, as it means there is a shortage of general practitioners (GPs) and family doctors. Due to this shortage, many doctors have to travel to see patients. In highly congested areas like Bangkok, this can mean that doctors have difficulty seeing their patients in person. It is not uncommon, therefore, for doctors to have to advise people via the phone.

7. Going to hospital

Due to the demand for general practitioners, expats might find that they have to visit the hospital for non-serious health issues that, in the UK or US, would normally be treated by a GP. Private and public hospitals are widely available and, if patients choose to go to a public hospital, they can pay extra to get a private room. In some cases, foreign patients are required to hand over their passports until they pay their hospital fees.

8. Pharmacies and medicines

Pharmacies are widely available in Thailand, especially in urban areas. Medication is usually affordable and does not always require a prescription. As such, doctors do not generally write out prescriptions for patients, but might just note down the name of the medication on a piece of paper. Many pharmacists speak English and can offer help with finding the correct medication for a patient.

9. Health risks

Thailand’s tropical climate means that, in some parts of the country, there is a risk of mosquito-borne diseases, such as Japanese encephalitis, dengue fever, chikungunya and malaria. Expats can protect against these illnesses by wearing long, loose clothing, using mosquito repellents, and seeking medical help if they start to experience flu-like symptoms. To defend against water-borne diseases like cholera and leptospirosis, people can choose to drink bottled water or simply sterilize their drinking water. There have been high levels of HIV, but levels appear to be on a downward trend.

10. Emergencies

In case of medical emergency, the number for an ambulance is 1554. Ambulance response times can be slow in urban areas, due to high levels of traffic and the reluctance of other drivers to give way to ambulances. Some public ambulance operators cannot speak English, so expats might choose to get a Thai speaker to make the call. In contrast to this, most private ambulance services employ English-speaking operators for their international patients.

In summary

Though Thailand’s healthcare system has improved significantly since 2000, many expats and citizens still choose to take out private healthcare insurance as it is generally more reliable. The prevalence of low-cost, high-quality healthcare means that many foreign nationals travel to Thailand for medical treatment, so the standard of healthcare available should continue to improve. However, the shortage of general practitioners means that expats could be expected to visit the hospital for minor issues, so it might be a good idea to research the local medical facilities available. There are also many other free guides available with useful information about healthcare for expats in Thailand.


Disclaimer: The information included in this article is provided for information purposes only and is not intended to constitute professional advice or replace consultation with a qualified medical practitioner. All information contained herein is subject to change.