Medical Tourism is the catalyst that’s changing the face of the GCC healthcare landscape as we know it. All throughout the region, billions are being invested in new hospitals and healthcare cities, radically transforming the quality of care available in the region. With the industry currently estimated at US$100 billion and a 15 to 25 per cent growth rate in destinations who have implemented best practices, Medical Tourism is the No. 1 cause source of disruption and innovation in global healthcare. It’s one of the primary reasons for investment in new hospital projects, as well as the refurbishing of old hospitals into new, cutting-edge facilities. It’s an economic priority by many of the world’s most forward-thinking governments.
The most recent trend that the Medical Tourism Association (MTA) has seen isn’t just about attracting international patients as inbound tourists – it’s about minimising the colossal amounts of money countries are forced to spend while shipping their own citizens abroad to other countries, too. The GCC countries alone spend more than US$10 billion abroad on their citizens each year, sending them away for complex medical cases and conditions that can’t be treated locally. Now, these governments are hoping to change the narrative by curbing outbound medical tourism by investing billions in their own local healthcare sectors to build sleek, technologically advanced hospitals. A modern healthcare presence attracts inbound internationals and keeps its own citizens home, resulting in an economic boom for a country’s medical, hospitality and travel sectors.
Medical Tourism isn’t about cosmetic and dental care; it’s about complex medical procedures that involve cardiology, oncology and orthopaedic specialists, as well as other innovative treatments and clinical trials. Patients are demanding the highest level of care, and they are increasingly willing to travel to faraway countries if it means finding the best doctors or the most advanced medical equipment.
The result of all this is an international healthcare race, with more than 60 countries looking to buy sleek new equipment and build specially constructed patient wings catered specifically toward medical tourists.
One sector that has completely missed the boat on this global opportunity is the healthcare supply chain. Medical equipment, technology, pharma companies and others should be shifting their products, focusing their sales and marketing efforts toward how their solution will help that specific government, emirate or hospital in driving medical tourism dollars to their particular destination. At the end of the day, healthcare consumers are choosing hospitals based on what’s inside the hospital, not the outside shell, and the healthcare supply chain should be jumping on this opportunity.
Fuelled by globalisation
Medical Tourism is now a massive, 21st-century ecosystem, fuelled by globalisation, that is loaded with new business opportunities for everyone. Just as savvy governments are finding ways to capitalise or improve their position by becoming industry stakeholders, companies would be wise to reach out and discover how they can enhance their revenue by addressing the increasingly “niche” needs of the field. Understanding this dynamic is key to operating profitably inside the industry.
The UAE is a shining example of a regional hub for medical tourism. Dubai launched an internal medical tourism initiative many years ago and helped build the UAE into a globally recognised brand, bringing in hundreds of thousands of medical tourists every year. In 2019, Abu Dhabi launched its own medical tourism initiative in partnership with the MTA, aspiring to become the region’s leading medical tourism destination. With Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi already in place as a featured asset and the newly announced partnership between Mayo Clinic and SEHA, Abu Dhabi has positioned itself as the epicentre of high-quality healthcare in the Middle East. Together, with both Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s initiatives, the UAE will likely separate itself as a notch above many other existing markets.
The UAE is well-positioned in medical tourism because of its central location, easy access and friendly visa policies, in addition to the noticeably high quality of healthcare. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are attracting the GCC and China, as well as Russia and the CIS countries. After the MTA signed a long-term deal with Abu Dhabi to make it a regional healthcare hub, we learned about one of the unique advantages that Abu Dhabi has arranged – it’s one of the few destinations in the world where its own Tourism Department has partnered with its Department of Health. Intra–governmental partnerships are the key to medical tourism success and sustainability.
South Korea is another shining example of a well-coordinated, internal governmental support of a global initiative and long-term commitment. When the MTA partnered with the South Korean government almost 13 years ago, South Korea went from an absolute nobody in global healthcare to a top-five destination within only a few years. The investment in medical tourism (global healthcare) all those years ago has built South Korea into a dominant leader in medical technology and pharmacology.
The MTA measures the perception and ranking of destinations around the world through a tool called the Medical Tourism Index.
Regardless of whether you are Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Switzerland, UK or any other destination, the key to building a world-class global healthcare destination is in fostering amazing patient experiences and turning every patient into a walking testimonial who refers more friends and families to become global consumers of health.
Medicine is only half the prescription in medical tourism; the most critical part is always the patient experience. The airport experience, hotel, tourism, restaurants and local commerce and shopping all play a role in forming patient experience. Nearly 90 per cent of patients bring a companion or family member(s), electing to spend two-three weeks in the country they’ve travelled to. This is why the tourism element and the economic impact is such a big deal for potential destinations.
Many of the leading hospitals in healthcare have committed to the highest standards in medical tourism and have been accredited by Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA), which is headed by Karen Timmons, the former President of JCI and COO of Joint Commission. Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, Bumrungrad in Thailand, which receives over 520,000 international patients from over 190 nationalities of patients, as well as many others have achieved GHA. This shows that these hospitals demonstrate the best practices in medical tourism. GHA facilities ensure amazing patient experiences, guarantee patient privacy, demonstrate transparency in their costs, and exhibit many other valuable elements that GHA grades as critical to the long-term sustainability of this industry.
Many hospitals and destinations looking for inbound international patients make the mistake of thinking they can just put out a sign and say they are open for business. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work. Most parties have a difficult time accessing the customers, or healthcare consumers. Education and marketing are both needed to grow both the industry and potential patients’ knowledge of it, as we are probably only at 5-10 per cent of the market’s true potential. After more than 13 years of leading and studying the industry, the MTA just consolidated all of its educational, consumer and research websites into one great site, www.MedicalTourism.com, to provide important information for both healthcare consumers and buyers. It’s a helpful survey of the market of medical tourism, provided by a trusted, transparent voice in a market filled with a lot of noise and confusion.
The other challenge the industry faces is too many operational silos. It is surprising to find that there are no audit trails, transparency, accountability, or reporting. Governments who spend billions of dollars a year on medical tourism do not appear to utilise any method of tracking how or where their money was spent. There is zero accountability and no audit trail. The industry needs continued investment in technologies and new solutions to disrupt the sector.
One new market entrant is Pulse Protocol, one of the first technology and future blockchain companies in medical tourism. Pulse has an opportunity to be the next “Uber” in healthcare, to disrupt the industry while bringing together the entire sector by allowing healthcare consumers to access medical tourism through their mobile phones. Pulse makes medical tourism more accessible by allowing patients from around the world to get second opinions, transfer medical records and make payments from their mobile phones. Currently, all these things are difficult to do, and we as an industry have created many barriers and obstacles for consumers to access global healthcare and new business to enter this space.
Pulse is bringing blockchain to medical tourism in a way that has never been thought of before, from allowing the review of doctors and hospitals that are verified through the blockchain after payment has been verified, to using blockchain as a means to credential doctors. More importantly, Pulse is putting the power of medical tourism into consumer hands, thanks to the power of smartphones. Blockchain investment in medical tourism can also help ensure patients traveling for care receive the right drugs, or that governments have audit trails of the billions they are spending in this sector. Proper tracking can result to more investments in the systems and processes.
Identifying right partners
Be careful who you partner with in this industry, and check your sources on medical tourism facts, research and figures. There is a lot of misleading facts and made up statistics that are published, as well as more than a few bad-faith actors. Too much of the research and statistics in medical tourism are actually made up out of thin air and has no basis in fact whatsoever. There are numerous companies peddling these false statistics as the latest in medical tourism statistics, which they would be happy to sell to you for US$1,000 or US$2,500, just to make a quick buck. Unfortunately, other research companies will republish these fake figures in their own reports, furthering a vicious cycle of misinformation. Investors have taken big risks on projects based on bad data and false assumptions.
This industry is a long-term investment; it’s not an industry where you should try to get rich quick. Many tried and failed. You have to be committed to excellence in every aspect of the field. Identifying the right quality partners in the industry can be one of the biggest challenges that face stakeholders.
As the industry grows, so do its biggest adopters. Medical Travel is now becoming a mainstream methodology at all the largest health insurance companies. Aetna, Cigna, United Healthcare, Bupa Arabia, Tawuniya and almost every other major insurance company now offers premium plans that cover treatment abroad and their programmes. Eighty per cent of African health insurance policies sold by AXA include a cross-border (medical travel) healthcare benefit. This is not just a trend; this is the new reality.
Healthcare consumers are demanding mobility within their insurance plans and willing to pay more for it. Medical Tourism has also made local healthcare providers have to up their game and invest in new medical technology, equipment and better outcomes for fear of losing local patients. If medical tourism has taught us anything, it’s that 21st-century healthcare patients now have access to the information they need to make intelligent decisions on whether to stay local or go global.
Medical Tourism hasn’t peaked or plateaued. As more patients have access to innovative solutions and gain more knowledge, more patients will travel. There is no longer one country or region that is the next innovator in healthcare. Now, every country can be an innovator in healthcare. You never know which country will pioneer the next medical breakthrough, the next cure, the next clinical trial. In the future, we will all be medical tourists.