Pent up demand – a medical tourism opportunity?

The pandemic clearly had a major impact on health services across the globe, diverting resources to treating COVID-19 patients and creating long term challenges for governments as they attempt to return to normal. Will this result in a boom in demand for treatment abroad?

As the pandemic subsides and hospitals begin to get back to the business of treating non-COVID patients, patients are facing major challenges in accessing the healthcare they need or the treatment that has been delayed through the pandemic. Several factors are driving this pent-up demand:

· In many countries, COVID-19 patients filled up hospital bed capacity and blocked the provision of elective surgery that would normally be undertaken. The UK is a prime example of the pandemic’s impact. At the end of December 2021, the UK’s NHS waiting list had risen to 6.1 million. It is estimated that this could rise to 9.2 million, possibly to as many as 10.7 million by Spring 2024.

· The pent-up demand for treatment does not only include those patients who are already waiting for treatment. Analysis published by the Health Foundation shows that while UK waiting lists continue to grow, so too does the number of ‘missing’ patients who have not yet been added to the list. There were far fewer patients referred for routine hospital care than would have been expected based on numbers prior to the pandemic. These ‘missing patients’ will add more pressure to the waiting list.

· With the delays in diagnosis of diseases such as cancer, patients are coming forward at a later stage of disease progression. The more severe form of a disease such as cancer takes longer to treat, requires resource-heavy forms of treatment and is more expensive.

· Even as the pandemic pressure eases, hospital capacity is still reduced. COVID-19 safe protocols will remain in place for some time to come. Infection control measures in place in most hospitals add time to operating theatre procedures. It is estimated that this, in effect, is reducing theatre capacity by as much as 20%.

It’s not just elective surgery that has been impacted. Take dentistry, as another example. Dental clinics closed down throughout the pandemic and continue to implement time consuming COVID-19 protocols. The end result… long waits for routine dental treatment and for more complex treatments such as dental implants.

These factors are not unique to the UK. Patients in many countries are facing delays in accessing treatment within their domestic healthcare systems. In the USA, a McKinsey survey of health system leaders, hospital executives reports that they may struggle to address this backlog given workforce availability, enhanced sanitation protocols, and reserved inpatient capacity. An analysis of cataract surgery volumes estimated that the USA may face a backlog of 1.1 million to 1.6 million cataract procedures in 2022.

An opportunity for medical travel?

If patients can’t access the surgery or treatment that they need in their own country, under their public healthcare system or state funded health insurance, will this prompt them to pay for the treatment either domestically or in another country?

The early evidence in the UK is certainly an increase in demand for “self-pay” surgery in the country’s private hospitals. HCA Healthcare, in London, has seen a 25% increase in self-pay hip and knee replacements; Spire Healthcare has reported a 47% growth in half-year revenues from self-paying patients. Some international clinics are also reporting renewed interest and bookings from foreign patients.

So, if you’re looking to attract international patients who are frustrated by the delays (and the cost) of treatment in their own country, what do you need to do? Here’s a quick 5 point checklist:

1. Ensure you understand what is going on in your targeted source countries. Do some detailed research:

a. Identify the areas of potential demand. Hips and knees? Cancer diagnosis and treatment? Dental treatment?

b. Understand the geography of demand in the source country. Are there specific regions where demand is high? (In the UK, regional waiting list times are made public on the web.) Research the catchment areas around the regional airports that fly direct to your country.

2. Get your pricing right. Cost is a major driver of many forms of medical travel.

a. Make sure you know the price the patient may pay for treatment in their own country.

b. Factor in the costs of travel and accommodation.

c. Ensure that your price point is attractive enough to deliver significant saving to the patient.

d. Offer an all-inclusive package. Don’t surprise the patient with hidden extras.

3. Get the product right.

a. Do you understand and can you meet the language and cultural needs of the patient?

b. Are you providing a comprehensive and supportive service throughout the patient journey – from initial contact, through to booking and treatment, and support when the patient has returned home.

4. If there’s one thing that patients want, post-pandemic, it is reassurance about quality and safety.

a. Can you provide clear evidence of your expertise? Outcome data? Quality data?

b. Can you convince the patient that you operate a “COVID-safe” environment?

c. Can you provide multiple patient testimonials from similar patients who can support your claims?

5. And last of all, measure your success (or failure!)

a. Set some very clear objectives. b. Make sure they are SMART.

c. And within SMART, focus on SPECIFIC. Do not try to be “all things to all men” (or all patients). Success in medical travel is about being focused… on what you are exceptionally good at, and on a very clearly defined target group of patients – in terms of disease, source country and demographic.

The next 12-24 months represent some very clear opportunities for medical travel. The pent-up demand is there. Can international hospitals and clinics “strike while the iron is hot?