Doctors Overseas: Medical Care and Training in Thailand

April 1, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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A world away from Western civilization, you’ll find Thailand, a country unlike you’ve ever experienced. If you are interested in a far-flung medical experience abroad, Thailand is a breath-taking location in which to participate in and learn about healthcare.  Here is a quick tour of the medical care and medical training available in Thailand.

Medical Schools in Thailand

If you are interested in going to medical school in Thailand, you have multiple options.  There are 22 medical schools located in the country, and the majority of them are public and state-funded.  The first medical school is Thailand was founded in the late 1880s at the Siriraj Hospital, a teaching hospital that remains one of the most highly reputable medical schools in the region.

Thailand Medical Care Philosophy

Current Thai medical care ethics have their origins in the 1920s when Prince Mahidol called on his nation’s physicians to treat patients as if they were all a part of their own families.  This ethical duty calls on physicians to serve all patients regardless of ability to pay for medical services.  Many heed this calling, but they supplement public patient care with private patient care to make up for deficiencies in income. Since the healthcare system in Thailand is state-funded and available to everyone, there is a limit to how much income a doctor can make working in the public healthcare sector. Private practice and specialization allow physicians to earn substantially more than their work in public hospitals.

Areas of Specialization and Areas of Improvement

In Thailand, there is a wide disparity in the services that medical professionals provide.  Because there is a perpetual shortage of general practitioners and family medicine doctors, patients in Thailand find themselves in long waiting lines to see their local doctor.  In addition, very few Thai doctors practice in just one location. They are working in a public hospital, or they are seeing patients in private practice, or they are traveling out into rural communities.  Most doctors practice a medical specialty, though not all specialties are equally represented in Thailand.  For example, formal training in emergency medicine is still in its infancy and continues to develop into a specialization that Thai medical students can master.  Emergency medicine in Thailand has developed with support from its Western medical school counterparts who recognized the need for Thai doctors to have specialized training in this field.

Gap in Care for Rich and Poor – Fueled by Medical Tourism

One of the more problematic medical care issues in Thailand is the widening gap in the care that the rich receive versus the care that the poor receive.  The difference is often the result of a patient’s ability to pay for services. Those who have more, financially, can purchase both time with and services from Thai doctors. Private insurance, currently competing with Thai state-funded coverage, provides doctors with a greater incentive to see patients with high-end medical coverage. Private insurance typically covers procedures that public coverage does not, and payment processing times are more efficient.
Medical tourism is business worth billions of dollars to the Thai economy.  While patients can take advantage of the many specialties of the nation’s physicians, medical tourists take time and attention away from the Thailand’s native population. They are typically high maintenance and demand more time and service from physicians who are already stretched too thin. Thailand’s government has invested significantly in creating world class hospitals, and patients are eager to take advantage of the fruits of its labors.  Medical tourists will travel to Thailand to undergo surgeries that they could not afford in their home countries.  In addition, cosmetic surgery is a popular specialty that medical tourists will elect; the most extreme, yet frequently requested, procedure is gender reassignment surgery. Thailand physicians have created a niche market for medical tourists to undergo procedures that they cannot easily and affordably obtain elsewhere.

Volunteer Clinical Experiences in Thailand

Thailand is still considered an emerging country, and the majority of its population lives in rural areas. The ongoing shortage of physicians in urban settings is particularly severe in rural settings, making Thailand a country primed for volunteers who want to provide community-based medical care. There are a number of organizations that provide volunteer clinical experiences in Thailand. During these experiences, you will be immersed in Thai culture, learn about traditional methods of healing, and provide Western-style medical care to those who live in the most remote regions of the country. Most importantly, you’ll help those who would not or could not traditionally seek medical care due to financial hardships or inability to travel to the nearest city hospital. Professionally, a service-based volunteering trip to Thailand can lend a tremendous advantage to your medical school application, particularly the personal statement, where you’ll be able to share a detailed narrative about the transformative nature of your Thailand experiences and their impact on your decision to become a medical professional.

Just Be Aware

Thailand continues to develop as an international hotbed of medical advancement, but you should be aware that there are dangers to living and traveling within the country.  First, infectious diseases are still frequently contracted by foreign visitors; these include malaria and dengue. You’ll need to be mindful of your health and physical contact with others during your stay.  Second, HIV/AIDS is prevalent in a number of regions throughout the country, including Bangkok, so you will want to be especially mindful about engaging in risky behavior with local residents.  Finally, Thailand is a country that has for too long suffered the ravages of war.  Refugee camps dot the landscape; unfortunately, landmines do as well. If you venture out into the more remote, rural areas, you will want to use the expertise of the local residents to ensure your safety.

Should You Go To Thailand?

It takes a special type of person to make the commitment to traveling to Thailand for medical work.  You’ve got to be flexible, open-minded, patient, persistent, and ready to embrace the oddities of a new culture. You are likely to be uncomfortable, both physically and mentally, during your stay, and your willpower will be tested. Does this sound like something you can handle? If so, take advantage of gap year medical experiences and volunteer clinical experiences. You’ll have the trip of a lifetime!

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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.