Access to medical expertise, a higher quality of care and a better outcome is one of the main drivers of medical travel. But with advances in telemedicine and telehealth and the global expansion of leading healthcare brands, medical travel may no longer be the preferred option for patients in some source markets.
There are many reasons why patients travel for healthcare – better care, better outcomes, lower cost, lack of treatments available locally, poor facilities and technology in the home country, legal restrictions on treatment (e.g. IVF) and so on. In many countries where the healthcare systems are underdeveloped or there is a lack of perceived expertise in an area of treatment, patients may decide that a better option is to travel abroad for treatment, irrespective of the relative cost. This is particularly true where patients are faced with complex diseases such as cancer and heart disease or where they just don’t trust the skills of their local hospitals and surgeons.
Even in what are seen as advanced healthcare economies such as the Gulf region, those who can afford it or whose government is paying or who believe they can achieve a better outcome elsewhere will opt for medical travel. But times are changing. Countries that were seen for many years as a rich source of international patients, often funded by their government or their employer, are becoming attractive as a target for hospital investment rather than a revenue stream for an international hospital.
So, how will the trend in bringing healthcare to the patient rather than bringing the patient to the healthcare impact on medical travel?
It is clear that the pandemic-driven growth of telehealth and telemedicine is already changing how healthcare is delivered “at a distance”. Where local medical expertise is lacking, borders are no longer a barrier to the delivery of expert diagnosis. International healthcare brands such as Mayo, Cleveland and HCA have integrated teleconsultation and telediagnosis into their international patient offering. A dedicated telemedicine/teleconsultation/telediagnosis service is now a “must have” for any hospital business that is serious about servicing the international patient. That requires investment in technology and in the communication skills of clinicians who may be more comfortable with the bedside or consulting room approach to patient assessment and consultation.
These trends and advances mean that international patients have access to greater expertise, a more informed diagnosis and a better outcome. However, to achieve the outcome, expertise is required at the point of treatment, assuming that some form of human intervention is required. That means bringing the doctor, the technology and the standard of treatment and care to the patient.
The earliest approach to this challenge was to fly expert clinicians into local hospitals to undertake consultations and surgery. Some hospitals aimed to recruit higher level physicians and surgeons from elsewhere into their local workforce, but this often proved unattractive to those at the pinnacle of their profession who wished to retain the link with their research and teaching hospital interests in their home county. One model which is now becoming prevalent is to export a healthcare provider’s management approach, treatment protocols and standards into countries where patients are seeking and willing to pay for a higher level of expertise.
An early example of this was the establishment of Moorfields Eye Hospital, Dubai, established in 2007, which incorporated teaching and research as well as consultant-led clinical care. Following the operational protocols and accessing the clinical expertise of its London teaching hospital parent, the UAE based facility has served over 150,000 patients, from within the UAE and from other countries. The success of the model has led to its expansion with the opening of Moorfields Abu Dhabi in 2016 and an affiliation with Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital (AJCSH) also in Dubai to provide paediatric ophthalmology.
Across the globe, international hospital brands are expanding their footprint, taking their clinical expertise to the patient. Cleveland Clinic is well known for its expansion into Abu Dhabi and most recently with the opening of its London hospital. Mayo Clinic has established offshoots in Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Shanghai, and London and has created the Mayo Clinic Care Network, with more than 40 members across the USA and in China, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Singapore and the UAE.
China is proving to be a hotspot for international hospital ventures. King’s College Hospital in London is to set up the first standalone liver centre in the Boao Lecheng International medical tourism pilot zone in Hainan, China. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has invested in the development of the Chengdu Wanda-UPMC International Hospital and has another four ventures on the cards.
So, in the long term, we may see less medical travel driven by the search for expertise and better outcomes. Bringing healthcare to the patient rather than the patient to the healthcare may offer a better return for those major healthcare providers currently servicing international patients.