For how long will medical travel be affected by COVID-19?

A poll of attendees from over 20 countries listening in to the first IMTJ webinar this week has found that 42% believe that from today, the medical travel sector will continue to be significantly affected by the impact of COVID-19 for another 6-12 months. A further 33% believe it will be affected for more than 12 months.

The medical travel sector faces major challenges with the spread of the Coronavirus across the globe and the resulting impact on healthcare providers and the restrictions on movement.

Chairing the inaugural IMTJ webinar, “Medical travel in a post-COVID world”, Keith Pollard, Editor in Chief of IMTJ, described how in the UK, there is significant pent up demand for elective surgery, with private and NHS hospitals facing a back log of treatment. Private providers, particularly in London, had previously relied on 20-25% of their revenue coming from international patients. This income has been significantly reduced, and it is likely to take a long time to reduce the NHS and private waiting lists for care. Attracting medical travellers back to the UK may also be a challenge due to the high death rate (estimated at over 50,000, many occurring in the care sector) and poor perceptions of how the government as managed the pandemic.

This is in stark contrast to how South Korea has tackled COVID-19, which has just over 13,000 confirmed cases and 284 attributable deaths recorded to date. Professor Jin Ki Nam, from Yonsei University stressed the importance of collaboration between all the key players, including the public, face mask manufacturers, the government, the Centre for Disease Control, healthcare providers and bio companies. He also believes that societal norms including, for example, wearing face masks and a collectivist culture that puts the importance of public safety above individual privacy, were vital to containing the pandemic. The challenge now for South Korea is to manage increasing public fatigue with remaining vigilant, to reduce the impact of a second wave, and promoting the sustainability of the country’s healthcare system.

Malaysia had a similarly aggressive approach to testing and containing the pandemic, said Sherene Azli, CEO of Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC). With just under 9,000 confirmed cases to date, and a 97.7% recovery rate, Malaysia is also one of the highest COVID-testing countries in the ASEAN. Medical tourism was the first tourism sector to be reopened, announced by the government on the 19 June. With a variety of standard operating procedures (SOPs) approved by the National Security Council on 24 June, Malaysia opened to medical travellers (subject to these SOPs) from the 1 July. There have been over 150 enquiries from international patients to date.

The impact of reduced medical travel to Malaysia has been significant however, and MHTC has revised its inbound medical travel revenue target for 2020 from RM2bn (US$500m) from private hospitals, to just RM500m (US$120m). By 2022, Azli thinks the sector will be back to 2017 revenue levels. In the last few months, MHTC has pursued an aggressive PR and branding campaign, boosting social media activity, and supporting their member hospitals and agents in other countries, to position Malaysia as ‘top of mind’ when patients decide to travel again. They see 2021 as a ‘post COVID recovery phase’, and have pushed back their major Malaysia Year of Healthcare Travel campaign from this year to 2022.

The UAE is another country which widely tested for COVID; there have been 3.7 million tests in a population of 10 million, said Rahul Shukla, Manager for the International Patient Centre at NMC Healthcare, UAE. Dubai has almost returned to ‘normal’, welcoming travellers from over 50 countries via its airport. Abu Dhabi will soon follow, and Shukla expects medical travellers to be welcomed back very soon. The UAE has focused on identifying ‘COVID-free’ hospitals, which will offer local and international patients thoroughly sanitised facilities for elective treatment. For the global medical travel industry, Shukla thinks a range of trends might emerge or increase, from new visa policies which include vaccination requirements, telemedicine as a core parallel revenue stream, knowledge sharing via webinars as mainstream, to more dominant regional medical travel hubs.

When will medical travel and tourism recover? “COVID-19 caused an unprecedented disruption to global tourism, the likes of which we’ve never seen before” said Michel Julian, officer in tourism market intelligence and competitiveness at the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). There will likely be 850 million -1.1 billion fewer international tourist arrivals in 2020, and many jobs and small and medium enterprises are at risk. UNWTO expects there to be a 60-80% decline in tourist arrivals by the end of this year, depending on when borders re-open and travel restrictions get lifted. Tourism has the capacity to bounce back: for example, it took 11 months to fully recover from the impact of SARs. But Julian predicts that while domestic tourism will recover first, international travel may not even start to improve until 2021, and much will depend on whether and where there is a resurgence of the virus.