The numbers of tourists travelling overseas for the sole purpose of obtaining healthcare treatment is rising, although it’s unclear how rapidly.
With no authoritative data on the exact numbers of medical tourists travelling between countries and continents, there remains some disagreement about the current size of the industry. Most available data on medical travel is of poor quality, with sources often lacking details about how estimated figures were calculated. There are also variations in the definition of medical travellers and a lack of agreed methods for data collection. However, there is a general consensus that the industry has flourished over the past decade and that this is likely to continue.
Travelling abroad for medical reasons is not a new phenomenon—people have travelled abroad for health benefits since ancient times. However, the pattern of travel has altered. During the 20th century, wealthy people from less developed areas of the world travelled to developed nations to access better facilities and highly trained medics. Currently things are different, with flow from developed to less developed nations, more regional movements, and the emergence of an international market. For example, patients from Western Europe are taking advantage of Eastern European nations for more economical medical treatment.
Destinations can be divided by focus:
Medical Quality Focus: These destinations are respected for high-quality, technological and clinical innovations. The services offered are highly priced and attract affluent patients who live in countries that typically do not have a very robust healthcare system. Countries: U.S., UK, Germany, Switzerland.
Value Focus: These countries sell services to patients from developed and other countries who seek maximum value for money. This segment is gaining popularity with good quality care that is 30% to 50% cheaper than Western Europe and North American countries. Countries: Thailand, India, Costa Rica, Czech Republic
Tourism Focus: These countries develop their brand based on the strength of their tourism and hospitality sector. Although their healthcare facilities handle complicated treatments within cardiology, oncology and orthopaedics, much of the focus is on elective procedures. Countries: U.A.E., Greece, Bulgaria
Governments initiate market strategies based on the country focus. For example, Singapore has been promoted as a centre for biomedical and biotechnological activities. Whereas Singapore’s bio-city is a government-supported network of established and emerging facilities and organisations, Dubai’s Healthcare City (DHCC) represents a planned bio-city, and is an attempt to encourage vast numbers of Middle Eastern medical tourists to stay within the Middle East rather than travel to Asia.
It is mostly low to middle-income countries that are the destination, and high-income countries the source. Although some places (including Dubai) may be simultaneously acting as countries of origin and destination. Dubai services overseas patients, while at the same time its own citizens travel as medical tourists to medical quality focus countries such as Germany and the U.S.
Before the formation of the U.A.E. in 1971, residents with means journeyed to destinations in the west, unsatisfied with the local healthcare services provided by the British government and American missionaries. In the decades following independence, the country’s healthcare infrastructure grew, with the creation of 40 public hospitals in operation by 1986, marking the advent of a modern healthcare system.
In recent years, however, the U.A.E. has witnessed an increase in the number of international patients arriving at its own shores for medical treatment. According to the Dubai Health Authority, medical tourism generated more than $381 million for the emirate in 2016. The city received 326,649 medical tourists, representing an increase of 9.5% over the previous year. The most popular treatments were orthopaedics, dermatology and ophthalmology. In 2016, the largest market for the emirate was Asian medical tourists, who accounted for 37% of visitors. Arab and GCC countries were the second largest market, accounting for 31% of tourists. Visitors from Europe amounted to 15% of the total.
As many of the medical tourists visiting Dubai are not price conscious, the quality element should not be overlooked. Patient satisfaction is an important dimension of healthcare treatment, although internationally little is known about the experience and satisfaction of medical tourists. Government initiative, Dubai Health Experience (DXH), ensures that medical tourists can understand their rights before arriving for healthcare. DXH provides medical tourists with the opportunity to compare and choose from over 400 healthcare packages that outline the cost, inclusions and exclusions. The packages combine both leisure and health, including hotel accommodation, visa and insurance along with the selected medical treatments. In addition, DHCC conducts annual patient satisfaction campaigns to gauge the overall patient experience at facilities within the DHCC premises.
In general, the value focus and tourism focus segments have a range of government agencies and policy initiatives to stimulate and promote medical tourism. It’s clear that many countries, including the U.A.E., continue to see significant economic potential in the industry.
Subodh Panangatt is the Head of Healthcare and Education Consulting at GRMC.