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A New Trend in Medical Tourism

Publish Date:2024-02-07

Healthcare and Health Maintenance in Taiwan

Mei Kuo

February 2024

Hospitals in Taiwan possess high-end medical technology and equipment, and Taiwan is a world leader in certain specialties, including liver transplantation and reproductive medicine. Institutions here provide very cost-effective healthcare services and have a competitive advantage against the rest of the world in terms of the level of medical science and the quality of care. When you also consider that Traditional Chinese Medicine is practiced here side by side with Western medicine, Taiwan offers a two-track Chinese and Western medical and health-maintenance environment that is rare anywhere around the globe.

There is a new global trend of traveling for medical care and health maintenance. If you come to Taiwan, besides enjoying the natural environment and local culture, you can also seek out healthcare consultations and medical treatment. In one trip you can satisfy your desire for both recreation and healthcare.


Taiwan’s robust healthcare system

The average life expectancy in Taiwan is nearly 80 years, significantly higher than the world average. The main reason, besides the island’s comprehensive national health insurance system, is that Taiwan offers high-­quality healthcare services. In 2023 the inter­national business magazine CEOWORLD compared the healthcare systems in 110 countries around the world, and Taiwan ranked number one.

Wu Ming-yen, CEO of the Medical Excellence Taiwan foundation, says that Taiwan put in place an assessment and evaluation system for healthcare institutions as long as 30 years ago. It was the first country in Asia and the fourth in the world to implement healthcare institution assessments. For example, to date 17 healthcare institutions in Taiwan have received JCI Gold Seal of Approval accreditation from Joint Commission Inter­national, an inter­national assessment organization for medical services.

Wu notes that Taiwan has an excellent reputation inter­nationally for a variety of medical services, including cranio­facial surgery, liver and kidney transplantation, assisted reproductive technology, cardiovascular treatment, joint replacement surgery, and dental care. Among these, liver and kidney transplantation are especially successful, with low rates of complications and high rates of success and survival. Living-donor liver transplantation in particular is renowned worldwide, with a five-year survival rate of 93.5%, higher than in Europe or North America.

Taiwan’s specialized medical service providers began engaging in international cooperation decades ago. In 2007, Shin Kong Wu Ho-Su Memorial Hospital worked with Palau to launch a joint healthcare program, including sending medical personnel from Shin Kong to Palau to provide on-site services, referring patients from Palau to Taiwan for treatment, offering a school nutrition education program, and training local medical personnel. Meanwhile, Far Eastern Memorial Hospital provides in-house training to doctors and dialysis nurses from Belize. Medical staff who have received training in Taiwan work as seed teachers to provide clinical training when they get back to Belize, thereby upgrading that country’s professional capabilities in kidney disease prevention.


Competitive advantage in cost-effectiveness

The saying goes that “to do a good job, a worker needs the best tools.” Wu says that good equipment is essential to good healthcare. Whether it be computed tomography (CT) scanners and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, which greatly assist disease screening and diagnosis, or even high-priced proton therapy devices for precision treatment of cancer, “Taiwan has a lot of them.”

In recent years, in addition to the treatment of diseases, there has been an increasing emphasis on preventive medicine. Large healthcare institutions have been willing to invest in equipment for sophisticated physical examinations and develop health check services to meet a rapidly growing market for self-paid health checks.

Alex Hung, administrative deputy superintendent at Shin Kong Hospital and chairman of the committee in charge of Health Check-up Program Certification at the Joint Commission of Taiwan (JCT), states that the JCT established the committee in 2021 to establish a quality certification system for health check programs provided by healthcare institutions. The JCT evaluates the caliber of various procedures, such as cancer screening, cerebrovascular and cardiovascular testing, and comprehensive physical examinations. There is consequently a high level of confidence about the quality of health checks in Taiwan.

Because Taiwan has a national health insurance system, its medical services are especially cost-effective. Wu Ming-yen references an article in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, which stated that Taiwan provides the best healthcare facilities in the world while the costs are very patient-friendly. This is a major reason why many inter­national patients choose to come to Taiwan for treatment.

For example, for in-vitro fertilization, in Taiwan the average live birth rate is over 30%, while the costs are only one-third of what they are in Europe, North America, and Japan.


Two-track Chinese and Western system

“Another unique aspect of healthcare in Taiwan is that it includes Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM], which incorporates both treatment of health problems and general health maintenance.” Wang Ching-chiung, a professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Taipei Medical University, states that although forms of traditional medicine are practiced throughout the world, it is only in Taiwan, China, and Korea that edu­cation, professional examinations, training and practice in Western medicine are incorporated into the standard training of TCM doctors, so that the TCM curriculum also covers basic training in Western medicine. This two-track system that includes both Chinese and Western medicine is very rare anywhere in the world.

Su Po-hsuan, an attending physician in the Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine at Taipei Medical University Hospital, explains that TCM uses the methods of observation, auscultation, olfaction, inquiry, and pulse diagnosis to provide differential diagnoses and prescriptions to people depending on their individual physical condition. There are nine basic patterns of physical condition, including “deficiency of qi” (vital essence), “deficiency of yang” (the active force), “deficiency of yin” (the passive force), “damp heat,” and “phlegm dampness.” Many people have a mixture of these types, such as a combination of “phlegm dampness” and “qi deficiency,” that need to be treated at the same time.

It is not only Taiwanese who opt for TCM treatment—many foreigners also seek TCM therapies for their bodily ills. For example, when Hitomi Kuroki, a Japanese actress and director who has won a Hong Kong Film Award, was invited to Taiwan in 2022 to serve as a presenter at the Golden Horse Awards, she revealed at a press conference that she would be spending an extra night in Taipei in ­order to see a TCM doctor to get medicine for her stomach.

Su Po-hsuan says that his foreign patients include some who seek TCM help for infertility, as well as people with Alzheimer’s disease who opt for TCM therapies including acupuncture and moxibustion to alleviate hand tremors or cognitive impairment, and who may take six months’ worth of medications with them when they return home, and come back for a follow-up appointment after half a year.


TCM and health maintenance

Wang Ching-chiung emphasizes that TCM not only offers therapies, but is also part of general health maintenance, which is a rare healthcare model anywhere in the world. For example, the TCM prescriptions for sore, watery eyes (a frequent problem among the elderly)—ji ju dihuang wan (pills containing lycium, chrysanthemum, and rehmannia), and mingmu wan (“eyesight-improving pills”)—have both therapeutic and health maintenance functions.

One of the principles of TCM is that the internal organs correspond to “meridians” that run through the body. When the functions of a certain part of the body fall out of balance, various methods can used (including scrape therapy, cupping, qigong, and acupressure) to enable the qi and blood to flow more freely through the meridians and restore the body to health and harmony.

Wang Ching-chiung states that masseurs at health massage facilities in Taiwan pay particular attention to accupressure points. When giving a massage, they explain to clients the internal organs that correspond to certain pressure points. For example, to relieve headaches they massage the pressure points called the taiyang xue (on the temples, at the sides of the head) and the hegu xue (in the flesh between the thumb and index finger of each hand). This is a practical example of how TCM has been incorporated into health maintenance.

Su Po-hsuan adds that while beauty salons in Taiwan give head, neck, and shoulder massages when shampooing hair, the head, neck, and shoulder massages and foot massages provided by wellness centers are based on the principle of pressure points. In addition, soaking at a hot spring can promote circulation of qi and blood and achieve the goal of health maintenance. Taiwan has well-known hot springs at locations such as Beitou in Taipei City, and Jiaoxi and Su’ao in Yilan County.

TCM emphasizes changing with the seasons and choosing a healthy diet suited to each part of the year. In spring, food should “nourish the liver”; in summer, one should eat things that “clear dampness” and “dissipate heat”; in autumn it is best to consume foods that “nourish the lungs” and “moisten dryness”; while in winter, tonic foods like ginger duck in rice wine, mutton hotpot, and sesame oil chicken are taken to keep warm. Su adds that people can first have their individual physical condition determined by a TCM doctor and then, based on this assessment, choose tonic foods with “warming,” “cooling,” or “balanced” properties to maintain their health in accordance with the seasons. In this way one can stay healthy naturally.


A new trend of medical tourism

The Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital, a major medical center in Eastern Taiwan, is a bastion of stem cell therapy and regenerative medicine as well as other specialties, and attracts many patients to come to Taiwan for treatment.

This year Tzu Chi began working with the Gaeavilla Resort in Hualien to promote an international tourism and healthcare plan. Patients undergoing long-term therapy can stay in the hotel with their families and enjoy Hualien’s beautiful scenery, and when they need treatment or follow-­­up appointments, shuttle vehicles will take them to the hospital and back. In this way international travelers can come to Taiwan and receive high-quality healthcare while staying at a high-end resort rather than in a hospital ward.

The Chang Gung Health and Culture Village in Tao­yuan’s Guishan District welcomes elderly people who are healthy, in suboptimal health, or disabled. The residences are built in a tranquil hillside forest.

The Health and Culture Village offers transportation to take residents to Chang Gung Memorial Hospital for medical care or to Carrefour for shopping. “Forty percent of the residents are ROC citizens who previously lived overseas, and there are 2,000 people on the waiting list to move in,” says Tu Su-chen, director of the Management Department.

We interview a Mr. Feng, age 65, who lived for many years in the US and China and who came back to Taiwan with his wife four years ago to live in the Health and Culture Village. Having just finished a taiko drum class, he tells us: “The quality of healthcare here is high, life is convenient, and all of us residents get along well, so it’s even better than I imagined.”

Alex Hung states: “Healthcare services are built on brand identity and trust.”

Combining recreation with medical treatment is an emerging trend in the tourism sector. Taiwan has a rich natural environment and a strong cultural foundation, and the medical community is highly experienced. You can arrange for a medical tourism visit to Taiwan and as you travel you can also experience high-quality health checks, cosmetic surgery, or specialized medical care, healing your mind and body amid beautiful scenery.


By Taiwan Panorama

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