Five medical tourism mistakes that will be repeated in 2015

It’s now more than a decade since we established Treatment Abroad and more than 8 years since IMTJ was established. That’s a long time in medical tourism!

In that time, I have seen many people and businesses enter…. and many exit the medical tourism market.

Medical tourism has not delivered the “exponential growth” promised by some industry proponents. Hence, the market has seen an unbelievable amount of “churn” (i.e. the rate at which businesses enter and exit a market).

This is true across all sectors:

  • Hospital and clinic operators have seen international patients as the solution to unfilled beds and a significant source of significant additional revenue. But many have failed to achieve their ambition. Visit some hospitals in “wannabe” medical tourism destinations, and you’ll find that they still have a very long way to go before they can say “we got a return on our investment”
  • Medical tourism facilitators and agencies come and go. Many start ups driven by passionate individuals who have experienced medical tourism for themselves have suffered from lack of investment, poor understanding of the market and lack of business acumen. Only a few have developed a long term sustainable business of a significant size.
  • Regional and national governments, clusters and other organisations that have invested in medical tourism initiatives have failed to achieve their objectives.

    So will we see things happen differently in 2015? I doubt it… unless we can learn from past mistakes.

Here are my five medical tourism mistakes…. The most common errors made by those aiming to make money in the international patient business.

1. Failure to define a strategy

The “if we build it they will come” approach is far too prevalent in the medical tourism sector. This is how it often goes…. “We want to attract international patients….. let’s build some new facilities, let’s get JCI accreditation, let’s set up an international patient department”. It’s a common approach that I have seen across the globe. Too often strategy is voiced as a hope or ambition rather than as a clearly thought out road-map to attracting international patients. In Istanbul recently, Irving Stackpole from Medical Travel Insight, highlighted the confusion in Turkey over strategy. The Turkish government has stated its strategy as “to attract 2 million medical tourists in ten years time” (the current comparable figure is around 200,000). But “How are you going to do that?” says Irving. “That’s not a strategy, that’s a hope, an ambition.”

2. Wanting to be “all things to all people”

Healthcare is a complex business. A multitude of conditions and treatments affect people around the world. So, why not offer to fix any healthcare problem that anyone has in a multitude of countries? Doesn’t that guarantee success? If you throw everything against the wall, surely something will stick? Unfortunately not! But we still see healthcare destinations and healthcare providers wanting to be “all things to all people”. In a recent discussion with the owners of a national initiative in health tourism, the project owners highlighted their priorities in terms of source countries and areas of healthcare. But these “priorities” covered a massive spectrum of healthcare needs across a multitude of nations with disparate cultures. I’ve said it before… I’ll say it again. Success in medical tourism is about identifying a specific niche (or series of niches) in terms of customer/patient needs. The smaller the niche the better the chances of success!

3. Ignoring and not understanding customer needs

Building a medical tourism brand is about building a great relationship with your customers…. the patients (and in some instances their sponsors who are footing the bill). But medical tourism (like healthcare in general) pays too little attention to understanding the needs of the customer and ensuring that those needs and expectations are exceeded. The focus, all too often, is on “what we do”, “who we are” rather than what the customer wants. “Come to us to get the best quality at the lowest cost and we’ll fix your healthcare problem ”. And then we’ll forget about you… The most revealing fact in the Treatment Abroad Medical Tourism Survey? Less than one in five medical tourists receive a phone call from the healthcare provider after they have returned home. That’s not the way to build a great relationship.

4. Competitive advantage and the non-existent USP

I’ve asked many providers in the medical travel business, “What makes you different, what’s your competitive advantage, what’s your USP (Unique Sales Proposition).” Plug all their responses into a Word Cloud generator and the Word Cloud would probably consist of three phrases…. “Low cost, high quality, state of the art technology”. JCI accreditation would probably come a close fourth. So what?

That’s it. Is that differentiation? Let’s hope in 2015, I come across more providers who have actually thought through what makes them different, what makes them stand out in an overcrowded marketplace and then makes the investment to get that message across to a clearly defined target audience.

5. Marketing investment… What’s that?

There are two basic and oft repeated mistakes when it comes to marketing investment in medical travel:

  1. The marketing budget is rarely anywhere near big enough to make a serious impact on the target market.
  2. What money there is gets spent in all the wrong ways!

    Let’s consider marketing budgets. Medical tourism is a long way from reaching the tipping point where it becomes a mainstream healthcare service. Few people consider it as a realistic option for solving their healthcare issue, and for those who do… travelling abroad for treatment is a decision of last resort, driven by a desperate healthcare need or a major financial need. So, the overseas treatment option is never front of mind with consumers. Even in the UK which is regarded by many as a significant source of dental, cosmetic and IVF tourists, I’ve never seen an advert on TV, heard one on the radio or come across an advertisement for a medical tourism service in a national newspaper or any national magazine with a significant circulation. When an EU destination (with a big fat EU funded budget) came to us with a request to advertise their destination in the UK, their budget was…. 3,000 euros… that doesn’t exactly buy you a promotional campaign. Time to get real!

And where does most of the marketing money that there is get spent? Exhibition stands, fam tours, glossy brochures…. which is great if you want to feel good when you tell your government minister “look at all we have been doing around the globe” but is probably next to useless when it comes to the tricky challenge of actually attracting some patients.

Looking forward

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
Perhaps in 2015, it’s time for those in the medical tourism business to try something new. And if they make some new mistakes, so be it. Perhaps we’ll learn something new!

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As Editor in Chief of International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) and a Healthcare Consultant for LaingBuisson, Keith Pollard is one of Europe’s leading experts on private healthcare, medical tourism and cross border healthcare, providing consultancy and research services, and attending and contributing to major conferences across the world on the subject. He has been involved in private healthcare, medical travel and cross border healthcare since the 1990s. His career has embraced the management of private hospitals in the UK, research and feasibility studies for healthcare ventures, the marketing and business development aspects of healthcare and medical travel and publishing, research and consultancy on cross border healthcare.