Will new entrants succeed where others have failed?

Certification schemes appeared, online portals flourished, conferences proliferated across the globe, clusters appeared as the route to a destination’s success.

Since then, we’ve seen massive churn in the medical tourism sector. New entrants have poured into the market; many have been disappointed. For several, the expected flow of international patients hasn’t materialised. The promises of exponential growth haven’t delivered.

The view of the Economist in 2014 in an article on “Why health care has failed to globalise” continues to ring true – “If a person could save thousands by shopping in the global health market, the reasoning went, insurers and governments could save billions“.

The Economist concluded that the failure of the market to develop was down to these key factors:

  • Growth has not matched the initial heady expectations.”
  • Patient interest turned out to be lower than predicted.”
  • Potential savings are often insufficient to trump concerns about quality.”
  • The lack of recourse if something goes wrong.”
  • Insurers are reluctant to invest in the idea.”

Is the goldrush over?

It would seem not. We’ve seen a flurry of new medical tourism hopefuls enter the fray. Here are some of the “we’re getting into medical tourism” news stories that IMTJ has covered in recent weeks:

  • The Zambian President says medical tourism has huge potential to enhance health care, staff development and training as well as research in Zambia.
  • Quezon City, Philippines, is seeking to become a leading global medical tourism destination by 2020.
  • The Montenegro Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism has said it wants to produce a health tourism development strategy and action plan this year.
  • The new head of the Georgian National Tourism Administration wants to involve the private sector, to develop and launch medical tourism.
  • The Brunei Ministry of Health is keen to promote medical tourism as a way to support the country’s economic diversification efforts.
  • Russia, usually seen as a major source of medical tourists, claims that the number of foreigners coming to Russia for medical treatment is growing exponentially, potentially rising by 40% in 2018.
  • Cyprus may re-enter the fray, after several previous attempts. A new tourism ministry has taken over the Cyprus Tourism Organisation and sees potential in medical tourism.

Nowadays, it’s becoming difficult to identify any country that doesn’t see itself as a medical tourism destination.

Will the newcomers succeed where others have failed?

The medical tourism landscape is littered with failed initiatives at national, regional or city level. Medical tourism clusters appear; initial enthusiasm is expressed by local healthcare providers; a poorly thought out strategy for attracting international patients is created; funding fails to appear; enthusiasm wanes.

Maria Todd at the Mercury Advisory Group provides useful insight into “Why Medical Tourism Clusters Fail“. She lists the most critical issues leading to a cluster failure that she commonly encounters:

  • Poor communication
  • Insufficient leadership and support
  • Organisational politics
  • Lack of understanding of the purpose of the cluster
  • Lack of member buy-in
  • Lack of collaboration as the most critical issues
  • Copy/paste design
  • Lack of infrastructure creation and support

Maria sums it up pretty well:

What puzzles me in these failures is how most were willing to pay US$50,000 on the cluster formation, but less than US$100,000 on training, software, implementation and infrastructure. Many jumped straight to renting conference stands in all their glorious, naked lack of preparedness and announced to the world that, “They now have a cluster!”, when all they had was a logo and a nearly empty bank account.

So, will Zambia, Montenegro and Brunei succeed where others have failed?

Probably not.