An introduction to the Thai health system

27 August 2018

Thailand is a huge and incredibly diverse country, with its tropical climate and friendly atmosphere making it a popular destination for both holidaymakers and expats alike. Medical care in Thailand has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, but if you’re new to Thailand, you may find its health system slightly different to what you’re used to. However, take a look at our guide and you’ll soon be up to speed.

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Choosing a family doctor

Most Thai doctors are specialists, so it can be hard to find one who acts as a general practitioner, as you may be used to in other systems (e.g. in the UK). Although some major hospitals in Thailand do have family doctors, it's usually easier to go direct to a specialist (See “seeing a specialist” below) 

Another important thing to know is that most doctors in Thailand don’t work in one specific place, and they may have a schedule that sees them working long hours across a number of different hospitals and clinics.

Expect to pay between 500 and 1,000 baht for a consultation with a private doctor.

Seeing a specialist

As most doctors in Thailand are specialists, it’s quite easy to find one if you need to. If you’re unsure of where to start, looking for a doctor of “internal medicine” is a good start. Local online listings and hospital websites are the best ways to find the details of the specialist you need and then self-refer.

However, not all government-run hospitals have websites in English – private clinics and hospitals are generally better equipped to deal with English speakers.

Emergencies

In an emergency, call 1669 for Thailand’s free state-operated ambulance service. You can also call a private hospital and use their ambulance service for around 5,000 baht.

However, many locals prefer to take their own cars or a taxi to the hospital if it's not a serious emergency as it's usually much quicker (but bear in mind that most Thai taxis don't have seatbelts!).

Once you arrive at the hospital, make sure you let staff know of any health insurance schemes you’re part of (“ฉันมีประกันสุขภาพ” – or “chan mee pra-kan sook-ka-pab” – means “I have health insurance” in Thai).

If you go to a government hospital and have social insurance you won't have to pay for your treatment, but you may find long queues and a limited choice of medication. This is why a lot of people – expats and Thai nationals – choose to go private when it comes to healthcare in Thailand.

Public hospitals have around four times the number of beds, but your private cover will also allow you to choose to stay at a private hospital with a global standard of care.

Paying for healthcare

Many choose private healthcare for its shorter waiting times and standards of care. Even within Thailand’s universal social insurance scheme, patients would usually expect to pay some of their healthcare costs.

It’s best to always have your health insurance documents to hand if possible (es-pecially if you're about to make a potentially costly trip to hospital!).

Getting prescriptions 

Both licensed clinics and hospitals can issue you with medication if you need it.

After you see a doctor at a government hospital, they'll give you a written prescription for the medication you need so you can collect it from the hospital pharmacy. Private clinics and hospitals will give you your medication after you settle your bill.

Because information sharing between hospitals is unreliable, it’s often easier to go back to the same clinic or hospital that gave you your prescription to order a repeat. They’ll already have all your details on file and the doctor can simply prescribe you more if you need it. 

You can also collect prescription medication for other people as long as you have identification (such as their ID card).

Pharmacies and over-the-counter drugs

In Thailand, most drugs can be bought over the counter without a prescription, including antibiotics and anti-malarial medication.

Pharmacists are also a good starting point when it comes to getting medical advice. They can make recommendations about minor ailments or tell you if your issue requires a trip to the doctor.

It can be a good idea to search for the medication you need on the internet before buying it at a pharmacy. This will help you clear up any potential translation issues.

Here are some Thai words and phrases that may come in handy:

  • painkillers – ยาแก้ปวด (ya gae puad)
  • antihistamines – ยาแก้แพ้ (ya gae pae)
  • sunburn treatment – ยารักษาผิวไหม้จากแดด (ya raksa piw mai jak dad)
  • insect repellent – ยาไล่แมลง (ya lai ma-lang)
  • insect bite treatment – ยารักษาแมลงกัดต่อย (ya raksa ma-lang kad toi)
  • I am allergic to (antibiotics, penicillin etc.) – ฉันแพ้ (ยาปฏิชีวนะ เพนิซิลลิน ฯลฯ) (chan pae (antibiotics, penicillin, etc.))
  • I need an interpreter – ฉันต้องการล่าม (chan tong-kan larm)
 
Dentists

People travel from around the world to Thailand’s dentists because they have a global reputation for cheap, high-quality dental procedures.

For day-to-day dental care, simply locate a reputable local clinic and make an appointment – you don’t need to be a registered patient, and most have English-speaking staff and websites.

Don’t be surprised if…
  • you find you don’t need a prescription to get most drugs
  • you doctor’s busy schedule means they can only offer you a telephone consultation
  • the taxi you take to the hospital doesn’t have seatbelts
  • you regularly see foreigners primarily visiting Thailand for medical care in its best private hospitals
 
Sources
  1. https://www.theguardian.com/health-revolution/2016/may/24/thailand-universal-healthcare-ucs-patients-government-political
  2. http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/2/10-010210/en/