The changing landscape of medical travel

Despite the impact of the pandemic on medical travel and tourism in general, it seems that the enthusiasm for announcing a new medical tourism initiative has not waned. New destinations are appearing and some developing, and established destinations are renewing their efforts to set out their stall for the prospective medical traveller.

The pandemic has hit the medical travel sector hard. Destinations and healthcare facilities that were once the “go to” for the medical traveller have had to rein back their ambitions, reduce their capacity and put a hold on their plans for growth. The impact of COVID-19 cannot be underestimated:

  • Major international hospitals in Hyderabad, India have reported falls of up to 70% in their international patient flow.
  • The Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI) reported a 76% fall in international patients to Korea with numbers falling to levels not seen since 2010.
  • Thailand’s Bangkok Dusit Medical Services (BDMS) announced a fall of 69% in income generated from patients from the Middle East.
  • Houston, Texas, a leading medical travel destination in the USA suffered a loss of US$294 million of international patient revenue in 2020.
  • Malaysia’s revenue stream from international patients dropped 53% and has rapidly launched a “recovery, rebuild and growth” strategy in response.

None of the established medical travel destinations have escaped the pandemic’s effect. Slowly, some are seeing recovery. International patient flow into London’s private hospitals and NHS teaching hospitals is getting back to pre-pandemic levels with the easing of travel restrictions and despite the high level of infection still being seen in the UK.

Thailand is allowing fully vaccinated medical tourists back in without quarantine, but with a requirement for extensive insurance cover. After almost 20 months of closure, Iran has reopened its doors to health tourists and medical tourists vaccinated against COVID-19, and Turkey’s government has eased visa requirements for foreign visitors coming to the country for medical treatment. It is also attracting an increasing number of patients from Bangladesh who have been unable to go to their usual destinations of India, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Nevertheless, nothing is certain when it comes to COVID-19, as we have seen with the resurgence of the virus in countries such as Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. Destinations and healthcare providers will need to react quickly and must continue to adapt their targeting strategy for source markets, in a constantly changing landscape of medical travel.

A resurgence of interest

What is, perhaps, surprising is the resurgence of interest in medical tourism initiatives in new and emerging destinations when the market is yet to recover and is still under significant threat from further waves of infection.

  • Enterprise Greece, says that the Greek economy is now performing well, the country is witnessing an investment boom and is particularly keen to develop health and medical tourism.
  • With the launch of “Travel for Treatment”, South African insurer, Discovery, wants to encourage inbound medical travel and make the South African private healthcare system more accessible to the rest of Africa.
  • Tobago aims to become a destination for healthcare and health tourism, as part of the Tobago Tourism Agency’s Roadmap for Growth 2020 – 2023, and believes that health tourism will attract visitors from key source destinations, including the USA, the UK, and Europe.
  • JAMPRO, the Jamaican Government’s investment agency, has drafted a medical tourism policy for discussion and is seeking international collaborations to improve medical infrastructure and develop medical tourism.
  • The Egyptian Agency for Partnership for Development (EAPD) has been set up to share technical expertise with African countries and is supporting medical tourism through the initiative “We take care of you in Egypt,” which was launched by the General Authority for Health Care.
  • And finally, Comercializadora de Servicios Médicos de Cuba (CMSC) is getting ready to promote Cuba as a medical travel destination to new foreign patients, with the reopening of the country’s borders.

“Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in”

The medical tourism aspirants and wannabes should take note of these wise words of former US politician, Bill Bradley. If they don’t want to join the serried ranks of failed medical tourism initiatives, then they must realise that a statement of ambition doesn’t deliver results. There’s a long list of cities, regions and countries that have launched a “let’s do medical tourism” drive, only to find that the road to success is littered with failures. Persistence is important; a well thought out strategy is essential.