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Global Medical Tourism and the Survival of the Fittest

Treatment abroad grinds to a halt. What's next for medical travel?


Never before has the focus on personal health been this intense. With the COVID-19 pandemic driving most of the world to a standstill, people are becoming more invested in their physical wellbeing as they recognise its long-term value.  

This, predictably, translates to more individuals taking stock of the medical industry as they look for the best treatments on offer. It does not, however, reflect on the sector just yet, as many are apprehensive about visiting hospitals and clinics while the coronavirus continues to take its toll.  

Medical tourism comes to a standstill

COVID-19 has significantly impacted the global medical tourism industry, given the lockdown measures and international travel restrictions in place. Patients who would often travel abroad for treatment in leading hospitals in Germany, the UK, the USA, India, Thailand and many other countries, now have to resort to options in their country of residence. Hospitals and medical tourism companies are already witnessing a blow to their business as they lose out on revenue from their international patients.

Speaking to Newsweek, Josef Woodman, the CEO of Patients Beyond Borders said:

Judging from dozens of conversations with medical tourism stakeholders in Mexico and around the globe, it's safe to say that 90+percent bookings were cancelled in March

 “We don’t see any medical travelers coming to the cities in India in the next two quarters,” Rajeev Taneja, founder, and managing director, Global Care, a medical value tourism (MVT) company, told the Times of India. He estimated that even if medical tourists decide to visit the country after travel restrictions are lifted, the numbers will be lower as prospective patients will have to adhere to various safety guidelines and be quarantined once they land in the country.

Currently, India ranks among the top countries in the world for medical tourism, alongside the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, Turkey, South Korea, and Mexico, all of which have been facing similar challenges.

In Thailand, the Bumrungrad Hospital, which was at the forefront of the country’s medical tourism boom, is seeing its business plummet. More than 50% of our patients used to come from overseas. They’ve now disappeared. The most important question is how we will get over this crisis,” said Artirat Charukitpipat, CEO. 

Long-term effects

While the pandemic has spelt gloom and doom for numerous industries, including medical tourism, there is still a sense of optimism prevalent. Several major players believe that companies will have to hunker down and ride out the dry spell, but expect business to start picking up later next year if countries can contain and counter the coronavirus. While many patients will be willing to hold off on elective surgery, fertility treatments, and dental work, there could be a faster return of international patients seeking bariatric surgery, liver transplants, and cancer treatments. 

A report published by Coherent Market Insights predicted that the global medical tourism market was estimated to exhibit a CAGR of 12.4% between 2019 and 2027. While these predictions will not ring true given the global crisis, the key reason for expected growth — the need for affordable, better medical treatment — will continue to be a driving force. 

Understandably, waiting months, if not years, for business to pick up may not be an option for smaller and medium-sized healthcare providers, even with lay-offs and government aid. But this global shutdown does offer the opportunity for companies to innovate and incorporate a more active technology-driven patient interface with telemedicine. 

Importance of reputation post COVID-19

In the aftermath of the pandemic, the medical tourism industry as a whole and the medical sector, in particular, expect to face disruption. For medical tourism, companies and countries that have so far built a reputation for high quality and safety standards will reap the most reward as patients are expected to become warier of travelling to foreign countries for treatment. A reduction in international patient demand will shift providers to focusing on domestic medical tourism.

“Given the dynamics of the gradual, phased withdrawal of protective measures in Croatia, we expect an adequate gradual return to everyday life, which includes the provision of comprehensive dental care in dental offices to foreign nationals,” said the president of the Croatian Chamber of Dental Medicine (HKDM), Hrvoje Pezo. He acknowledged that reaching pre-pandemic volumes of business will not be an overnight feat but said that quality service would assure the return of foreign patients. 

A large portion of Croatia’s medical tourists come from Italy in search of affordable dental and cosmetic treatments. Given the high number of COVID-19 cases in Italy, the Croatian government will have to set up strict screening measures if it plans to open its borders in the near future.

Over the past decade, Turkey has been making strides in medical tourism and is continuing to invest in the sector despite the pandemic. The country is building two large pandemic hospitals in Istanbul, close to airports, and plans to convert them into multi-specialty hospitals catering for health visitors in the future. President Erdogan was recently quoted as saying

We attach great importance to health tourism. We have different plans regarding this. Foreign patients will be able to come by air ambulance, and will fly home after treatment. This is a new opening for us. With this move, Turkey will serve as a health hub.

The UK private healthcare market in London receives thousands of medical tourists from around the world. Patients from Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Egypt account for a significant portion of international patient inflows. A contraction in demand is expected until air travel resumes and we are closer to a coronavirus vaccine. However, in the near term, government NHS contracts are likely to offset the revenue gap for London’s private hospitals.

Competition in the UK private healthcare market is only likely to increase as new players enter the frame. The coming year is expected to see the arrival of Cleveland Clinic London, a top-ranked US hospital, offering greater world-class choice to medical tourists visiting London for treatment.

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