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What does the road to recovery for international medical travel look like?

2020 USCIPP annual meeting highlights COVID-19’s impact on international medical travel.

On the first day of the 2020 USCIPP annual meeting yesterday, being held virtually due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the panellists shed light on the impact of the virus on the medical travel industry.

Speaking at the ‘International medical travel trends & industry outlook: a USCIPP analysis’ session, Tricia Johnson, Professor, Department of Health Systems Management, College of Health Sciences, Rush University, and Research Director, USCIPP, shared that before COVID-19, the U.S. received over 63,000 unique patients, with 87 per cent being adults and 13 per cent paediatric patients, and generated approximately US$2.9 billion in gross revenue. The patients were mostly travelling for treatments related to oncology, cardiology, and neurosciences, both adults and paediatric patients, and the majority were travelling from the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar as well as Mexico, and Canada.

She said: “If we go back to 2015-2016, 2016-2017, and 2017-2018, the market had overall remained steady or modestly increased. Prior to COVID-19, the U.S. saw quite a strong and promising market, with new geographic regions emerging and patients travelling in relatively high volumes.”

Road to recovery

It is not a surprise that COVID-19 has impacted all aspects of the travel and tourism industry. Johnson said that one of the first questions USCIPP got from its members was that were there any lessons learnt from 9/11 and the Great Recession (2008-2009).

She explained that post 9/11, there was a moderate decrease and it took nearly 10 years for inbound travel to recover. And while another drop was seen post the Great Recession, travel volumes recovered more quickly after 2008-2009.

One of the challenges, Johnson emphasised, for inbound medical travel would be consumer confidence in the U.S. as a travel destination and visa restrictions that may have a more lasting impact based on medical travel patterns post 9/11, and the fact that different U.S. states don’t have a coordinated response to COVID-19.

She said: “USCIPP spent some time looking at what recovery might look like and took a quantitative approach to look at increases in travel and when these might occur. The key consideration is when are we going to have rapid availability of point-of-care-testing (POCT) that will allow patients to travel easily before a vaccine is available.

In terms of projections, she stressed that there is some increase expected between now and 2023. However, a lot of the slope of the recovery is going to depend on when rapid POCT is available at a low cost and when a vaccine would be available. Although even through 2023, medical travel won’t be at the same point it was a year ago. Some increase in patients travelling in the coming months is also anticipated.

“I believe the economic crisis of COVID-19 will have a lesser effect on inbound medical travel than other factors once regional economies being to recover. The lessons are we learning right now can allow the industry to be more resilient and stronger going forward,” she added.

Opportunities for medical travel

According to Johnson, the growing importance of cultural sensitivity as a business imperative is more important than ever before today. Below she stresses on five growth opportunities for the medical travel industry:

  1. Hospitals should strategically grow service lines that differentiate them from the market. Fewer international patients, with more complex needs, would mean higher revenue, as for some patients, risks of travel would outweigh the benefits. Also, hospitals can leverage their unique skills and make it as easy as possible to access them.
  2. Target geographic regions with easier travel to hospitals such as where flights are shorter and might not require air travel. For the U.S., it would be the North American market that saw a 30 per cent increase in patients prior to the pandemic.
  3. Strengthen non-patient collaborations and relationships: education & training; marketing & consulting; management service agreements and joint ventures.
  4. Change the narrative: Public confidence in the U.S. national public health response versus U.S. patient care response to COVID-19, highlight the positives.
  5. Leverage expertise and sophistication of telehealth for international patients.

“We are facing challenges we haven’t faced in the past, but there are opportunities to be innovative, provide access to care and improve health globally,” she concluded.

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