Medical travel: why we should stop focusing on increased numbers

Medical travel analyst Ian Youngman argues that medical tourism destinations need to stop concentrating on increased numbers.

Mainstream tourism countries, including regions and cities in France, Italy, The Netherlands and Spain, are limiting the number of inbound tourists and moving to visitor quality and revenue. The focus for  tourism marketing in 2023 is more about protecting the environment, improving quality of life for residents and tourists, and seeking to guide tourists away from over busy areas.

It is still however true that some countries are still seeking to increase numbers with none of the above concerns. Similarly, the medical tourism sector has tended to focus on numbers of inbound medical tourists as the main benchmark for success.

While there will always be a medical tourism core of providers and destinations focused on high numbers and low prices, government tolerance for that type of promotion may fade as countries move in other directions.

It is also understood that medical and health tourism customers tend to spend more, and stay longer, than regular tourists. Health tourists may be higher spenders than medical travellers, but the reverse may be true in some countries depending on the type of medical tourism services on offer. And yet the medical travel sector has yet to grasp that long term success is not measured in customer numbers, but in profitability.

Just imagine how short a life a Chair of a corporation would have, if they stood up at the AGM and told shareholders that the company had falling revenue and even worse profitability, but they should not worry as they had an increased number of customers in total and an increased market share. Think of the many popular and well-known companies with millions of customers that were poor at making a profit and that have vanished over the years.

In the world of medical tourism, Country A with a million medical tourists is lauded as more successful than country B which has 500,000.  Seen in terms of gross revenue, A makes more than B. Any businessperson will know that these top line numbers are useful but what really matters is how much profit is being made.

Country A may make a profit of US$1,000 per customer while country B makes US$3,000 a customer. So, B makes more at US1,500 million than A does at US$1,000 million.

Medical tourism needs to start looking beyond customer numbers and gross revenue, to real profit. This change requires much more professional management and may mean a change in marketing, pricing and services offered.

It may also mean, as some countries have already done, exiting the medical tourism market and seriously considering whether even health tourism is the best tourism niche to offer.

For many countries, medical tourism is such a tiny niche within tourism that governments and their tourism organisations do not even bother to support it, even if it is seen by analysts as a leading medical travel destination.