What will re-stimulate international patient business?

At some time in the future (don’t ask me when!), the world will return to normal. Or perhaps a new normal? Medical travel will once again become a possibility. So, where will the low hanging fruit be? What opportunities may emerge that present a stimulus for growth for your international business?

Think local, not global

COVID-19 has stopped people travelling. Post-pandemic, people will be reluctant to travel, particularly over longer distances. Air travel will become significantly more expensive as airlines seek to recoup their losses. Restrictions may be imposed on airlines to reduce the number of passengers on each flight and impose a degree of social distancing during flights. The further you travel, the much more expensive it is going to be. So, focus on your near neighbours, on cross border travel. Keep a keen eye on what is happening in your closest markets and how this may impact healthcare demand once the restrictions are lifted. In many countries, COVI-19 is resulting in pent up demand for non-urgent elective operations.

When restrictions are lifted, domestic public and private healthcare systems will take a long time to catch up. Waiting times for operations will be at an all-time high.  Are you focussed on meeting that pent up demand? Are you putting plans in place now to target those nearby markets and that demand?

Virtual healthcare

Probably the most positive effect on healthcare systems, resulting from COVID-19, is the efficiency seen by the adoption of virtual healthcare – online and video consultation. With social distancing measures, we’ve seen an incredible growth of online video in people’s lives for people of all ages. Education is being delivered online. A multitude of virtual fitness classes are being offered. In the UK, primary care has switched rapidly to telephone and video consultation. Families and friends are meeting through Zoom, Skype, Facetime and Houseparty. It has become the new normal.

In a post-pandemic world, does your hospital, clinic or medical travel agency have the technology in place to enable video consultation and communication with potential and existing patients throughout the patient journey – from enquiry through to post-treatment care?

Emphasise safety

“Is it safe?” is the first question posed by patients considering travelling to a foreign country for any form of treatment. How has your country fared in the battle against COVID-19? Some countries have clearly enhanced their global reputation in terms of the quality of their healthcare – South Korea being the standout example. A safe environment, whether in a country as a whole or in an individual hospital or clinic, will be front of mind when patients are comparing destinations or providers. So, keep this front of your mind when considering how to position your service offering.

The medical travel sector attracts a lot of interest and a great deal of enquiries but, sadly, much of that interest and many of those enquiries don’t turn into business. The reason? Because people are uncertain; they are not convinced that medical travel is a safe or sensible option. So, our focus must be on minimising and removing risk, and changing the perception of our potential customers.

IVF travel

One area of healthcare that will see a resurgence is travel for IVF. It’s already one of the fastest growing sectors of medical travel. But the impact of COVID-19 has meant the closure of IVF clinics and loss of access to IVF treatment. On 15th March, the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) issued advice on cessation of services. IVF treatments have been cancelled; thousands of couples have been left in limbo. Expect a post-pandemic surge in cross border fertility travel.

How long will the recovery take?

Much longer than many people think. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) expects that international tourist arrivals will be down by 20% to 30% in 2020 when compared with 2019 figures. Taking into account past market trends, UNWTO states that between five and seven years’ worth of growth will be lost to COVID-19, and, putting this into context, notes that in 2009, on the back of the global economic crisis, international tourist arrivals declined by 4%, while the SARS outbreak led to a decline of just 0.4% in 2003.

Be prepared for a very long haul.

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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.