The top five burning issues in medical tourism

At the IMTJ Medical Travel Summit in London, April 15th-16th, we’re aiming to focus on some of the key issues that face the developing medical tourism market. Here’s my “pick of the bunch” of the conference topics.

The role of the travel and tourism sector

The “traditional” tourism operators and travel agents have shown little interest in medical tourism. It’s viewed as a niche sector requiring specialist expertise to make it work and deliver a return.

Noel Josephides, Chairman, Association of British Travel Agents, has strong views on the role of travel agents in medical tourism and of the activities of some medical tourism facilitators who are operating as medical travel agents in ignorance of the regulations that bind a travel agency business.

But there are significant opportunities for travel and tourism operators to get involved and reap a reward in the softer areas of medical travel such as health and wellness tourism that do not involve the significant risks of surgical interventions.  Peter Nash, Strategic Chairman of the European Travel Commission will consider the opportunities to build a destination brand in this sector.

Where is the growth coming from?

In recent years, we’ve heard the stories of “exponential growth” which have attracted numerous entrants to the sector, both destinations and providers. But many have remained disappointed when the market has failed to deliver to their expectations. Irving Stackpole of Stackpole and Associates will be looking at why this is so and where some of the newer entrants have got it wrong, and some have got it right. Mature destinations providing high value services to the international patient (e.g. USA, UK, Germany) continue to thrive but the development of domestic healthcare services in their traditional source markets in the Middle East pose a threat. Leonard Karp, President and CEO, will be looking at how Philadelphia International Medicine is building a sustainable international patient practice. Chris Canning from Moorfields Eye Hospital in London and Dubai will examine the potential to create an “overseas footprint” to develop a market presence.

What do buyers and customers actually want?

There is little independent research carried out in the medical travel sector about what buyers (those who commission medical travel on behalf of governments and organisations) actually want, and what our customers think of their medical tourism experience. Dr Mussaad M. Al-Razouki, Chief Business Development Officer of the Kuwait Life Sciences Company will give his buyer’s perspective. Elizabeth Ziemba of Medical Tourism Training Inc will be interviewing some real patients who have jumped on planes to seek treatment abroad.

What do we call it? And how do we count it?

Two people talking about medical tourism could be talking about two completely different things! The language of the sector is confused. Is it medical travel? Medical tourism? Health tourism? What is wellness travel? Where do spas fit in? Is cross border healthcare medical tourism? What fits where and what should we call it?

The hotel and tourism sector has standard ways of measuring success and comparing destinations and providers. The hospital sector has standard measures and indicators. But when it comes to medical travel everyone counts things differently! In the UK, an international patient is someone who specifically comes to the UK for treatment. In Malaysia, an international patient is anyone with a foreign passport whether they live locally, have travelled there on holiday or for business, or specifically for treatment. In Thailand, one visit to a hospital department by a foreign patient counts as one medical tourist. Hence one individual undergoing treatment may be counted ten times over when medical tourist numbers are totted up.

Laszlo Puczko, Founder of the Tourism Observatory for Health, Wellness and Spa in Hungary has been working on a new UNWTO handbook on health tourism. He’ll be sharing his insight in to the taxonomy of the sector and the “medical tourism numbers game”.

Is the EU Directive working?

The hoped for a surge in cross border healthcare in Europe is showing no signs of appearing.  So, was it all worth it? Has the Directive changed the EU healthcare landscape? Or has it just established a proper framework for what was happening already? John Rowan from DG SANCO in Brussels will outline how the EU Directive will extend the options for the EU patient in the longer term.

Destinations targeting medical travellers in Europe cannot ignore the impact of national and EU legislation on their promotional activities. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority will be  explaining its recent focus on the promotion of medical tourism in the UK.