Medical tourism…lessons from the California gold rush

In 1848, gold was discovered in California by John Sutter, a German immigrant. News of the find spread rapidly and thousands arrived in search of their fortune. Prospectors came from across the USA, from Hawaii, Mexico, Chile, Peru and China

In 1848, gold was discovered in California by John Sutter, a German immigrant. News of the find spread rapidly and thousands arrived in search of their fortune. Prospectors came from across the USA, from Hawaii, Mexico, Chile, Peru and China. The California gold rush had begun. California’s output of gold rose from $5 million in 1848 to $40 million in 1849 and $55 million in 1851. But there wasn’t enough gold to go around….only a minority of gold miners made much money from the Californian Gold Rush…the best equipped, the best informed, the best organised and resourced.

Others also made money; the saloon owners (and brothel keepers!) who kept the prospectors entertained made a healthy profit, and so did the entrepreneurs and store owners who provided the supplies and tools that the prospectors needed (often at exorbitant prices).

Are there some parallels and some lessons here for those involved in the medical tourism gold rush?

The discovery of medical tourism gold….
Although the concept of travelling for treatment has been around for centuries, it was probably around 2005 when the medical tourism gold rush really took off; it still continues today and shows little sign of abating. News stories appeared around the world about a surge in medical tourism – patients travelling to save money on treatment costs (as opposed to seeking medical services and healthcare quality that were unavailable in their own country). The first prospectors appeared – medical tourism agents and facilitators, and overseas hospitals and clinics seeking their fortune in the world of medical tourism.

Word spreads, prospectors pursue the dream of medical tourism gold….
The tales of medical tourism gold began to multiply. Estimates of the number of medical tourists were in the hundreds of thousands, the millions, and then the tens of millions. Few medical tourism prospectors questioned the validity of these claims of the discovery of a rich vein of income or whether it was sustainable.

Those involved in the early gold rush exaggerated their successes, claiming massive finds (e.g. “one million medical tourists to….), encouraging others to join the frenzy. Healthcare providers in countries all over the world entered the race – Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Jordan, the Philippines, Tunisia, Turkey, Eastern Europe, many of them backed by their tourism boards, health departments and government initiatives who saw medical tourism as a rich source of foreign currency.

….without thinking or understanding what’s really involved
New entrants pursued the dream without really thinking through their strategy and approach to the market. Some went into the market ill equipped; some went into the market without realising what it might cost to be successful; some went looking for medical tourism gold in completely the wrong place!

A community of medical tourism prospectors develops
As the number of medical tourism prospectors grew, others (the saloon keepers) arrived quickly to profit from this growing community, and store owners and tool suppliers appeared to guide the prospectors in their pursuit of gold.

The saloon owners arrived in the form of the associations and medical tourism conferences that make their money from membership fees and delegate fees. They provided a place where the prospectors could get together, but they also built on the hype, retelling stories of the latest discoveries and attracting more people to the medical tourism gold rush. Of course, the more people in the gold rush, the more people there are in the saloon, and the more money there is to be made by the saloon owner.

The entrepreneurs and store owners also arrived on the scene to provide the tools that the prospectors needed to mine medical tourism gold. Web sites like our own (Treatment Abroad) that link patients with providers, systems companies like Health Travel Technologies and e-Medsol that provide the systems to manage patients, and consultancies, strategists and advisers like Irving Stackpole and Vivek Shukla who help the prospectors to locate medical tourism gold came into being. Are these entrepreneurs and store owners (including my own Treatment Abroad “store”) taking advantage of uninformed prospectors by providing poor quality services and products and overcharging for them. Or are they providing sensibly priced services and much needed tools that will bring long term success to those who use them wisely? Only time will tell…. and it will be the success of the prospectors who determine our success.

The gold runs out…or is harder to find and mine
As in the California gold rush, reality has failed to live up to expectations for many prospectors. Clinics, hospitals and facilitators are finding it harder to acquire patients and there’s a great deal of competition out there. Nevertheless, for many the gold rush mentality continues.

After the gold rush?
So, what’s the likely outcome of all this? What can we expect in the next stage of the medical tourism gold rush? In my next blog post, I’ll give some thought to who will strike gold and how will the industry develop.

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Keith Pollard
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.