Omnia Health is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Enormous shifts in medical travel and competitive challenges

Article-Enormous shifts in medical travel and competitive challenges

Shutterstock medical-travel.jpg
Healthcare providers that incorporate tech into the clinical care and patient journey have an advantage over consumer demand.

As the health and medical tourism sectors began to emerge from the trauma of the COVID pandemic at the beginning of 2022, global travel slowly started to gain momentum and the demand for cross border healthcare services increased gradually. Current trends have materialised, changing the delivery of services and the competitive landscape. Innovation, fresh strategies, novel approaches to enhancing the patient journey, as well as exploring new markets mark the way forward.

Travel chaos: patient safety and risk management

Once the borders reopened to travel, airlines, airports, and supporting services were called on to meet the exploding demand, which was an enormous task. Airlines have done their best to deliver but the reopening process has been extremely challenging. The year 2022 saw record numbers of cancelled and delayed flights, lost and undelivered baggage, shortages of pilots and flight attendants, limited wheelchair services, and other disruptions in travel services. Airline services are not expected to reach pre-2020 capacity until 2025.

These gaps in services and uncertainty of reaching destinations on time created headaches for international patient departments and facilitators who are trying to assure patient safety and reduce risks, both clinical and nonclinical. Patients may be at greater medical risk if stranded at airports due to cancellations, missed flights, or substantial delays.

Anticipating problems, offering pre-travel solutions, and extra attention are all required now and for the next two or three years.

In 2022, the world saw the impact of climate change in the number of extraordinary weather events including extreme flooding, droughts, hurricanes and fires — some of which have occurred in places that never experienced these types of situations. Risk management responses may include evacuation, relocation, or cancellation of medical procedures. New risks to staff have surfaced as violence against healthcare workers has risen globally, during a period of staffing shortages.

These external societal challenges require a re-examination of the patient experience, for all patients, domestic and international. The patient journeys should be updated and remapped for at least four aspects of the patient journey: clinical; logistical; technological; and emotional/ psychological. The journey map for accompanying guests also should be updated to ensure their best possible experience.

Many competitors completed updating their patient journeys as well as the patient safety, risk management, and evacuation plan review. But what updates need to be done at our hospital or clinic?

Telehealth and telemedicine: health and medical travellers want more

Consumer acceptance, use of telehealth and telemedicine visits, and consultations skyrocketed during the past two years. More people than ever have access to health data through mobile phones and wearables. Healthcare providers lagged in integrating this data into preventive care and monitoring of medical conditions.

Medical travel is the perfect opportunity to utilise this readily available information that can be reliably reported to the home physician as well as the travel team to coordinate care. During these days of stressful travel, medical conditions can be monitored to ensure the patient’s fitness to travel throughout the journey, as well as to manage risk when the data supports an intervention from minor to major.

The healthcare providers who embrace the technology and incorporate it into the clinical care and patient journey will have a competitive advantage while meeting the demands of consumers.

Changing global landscapes: new competitors and shifting markets

Prior to the pandemic, the Gulf countries and China were the major sources of patients travelling for health and medical care. The flow of patients from those regions has substantially changed due in part to investment in infrastructure and political influences. The shift ranges from sending patients abroad to treating their own citizens internally as well as serving international patients. It may take years or decades for the full impact to be felt but the trend has started. The time to prepare is now.

The biggest player to emerge onto the international medical tourism scene in the past three years is Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is investing billions of dollars in both domestic infrastructure and posturing to become a major destination for international patients. Money is no obstacle.

According to the International Trade Administration’s Saudi Arabia Country Investment Guide, “Under Vision 2030, the Saudi Arabian Government plans to invest over US$65 billion to develop the country’s healthcare infrastructure. In addition, it aims to increase private sector contribution from 40 per cent to 65 per cent by 2030, targeting the privatisation of 290 hospitals and 2,300 primary health centres”. The logical consequences of this investment are better and more options for treatment in country with less government support for treatment abroad.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, among others, have plans to expand their share of the health and medical travel markets. Their success will dramatically reduce the number of patients leaving the region for healthcare services.

Like Saudi Arabia, China’s role in crossborder healthcare services will treat more of its citizens domestically by investing in healthcare infrastructure. Its plans to build more hospitals have been disrupted by the impact of the pandemic and the country’s zero-COVID policy which has all but closed the borders. The country has demonstrated that not only can it build hospitals quickly but also graduate enough well-trained doctors and nurses to staff them.

Healthy China 2030 is a blueprint for revamping and upgrading the entire Chinese healthcare system to improve quality and access to services for its citizens. There are equally ambitious plans to promote China as a medical tourism destination. The tip of the iceberg is the South China province of Hainan. It is targeting 500,000 medical travellers by 2025.

Innovate, plan, and grow

The change in health and medical travel sectors from 2019 to 2022 is substantial. The travel sector, as well as the environment present patient safety and risk management challenges. Consumers want technology to be incorporated into their care, but providers are slow to offer what they are demanding. New competitors with huge budgets are moving into the global marketplace, changing the pre-COVID dynamics.

To remain competitive, healthcare providers must innovate, rethink old strategies, and plan for the future.

References available on request.

Elizabeth Print 2 cropped-min.jpg

Elizabeth Ziemba, JD, MPH, is the President of Medical Tourism Training, and Regional Director for Temos serving the US, LATAM, and the Caribbean. She is a pioneer in the fields of wellness, health, and medical travel.

This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today.

Back to Management

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.