Medical Tourism Industry: How will it respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The medical tourism sector has been on the up for quite a long time. However, the arrival of a global pandemic has left the industry scrambling for a way out…

How many of us can claim to understand the term ‘medical tourism’ or ‘wellness tourism’? Its certainly not a difficult one to figure out, as it simply means the movement of people between countries in order to receive treatment for a vast number of diseases or disorders. And why not? There are many countries that offer treatment for a particular condition at a significantly lower cost, which is a major factor that is shaping this industry. Some other reasons for the sustained importance of this industry include the preference of the immigrant population in an economy to return to their home country for health care; while there is a significant population that undertakes such travels owing to the lack of treatment or infrastructure in their own country.

A well-known concept

Many times, the concept of wellness tourism and medical tourism are considered as one by the general population. In truth, there are some major differences. Wellness tourism is perfect for travelers who seek to extend or enhance their wellness lifestyle, and is a trillion-dollar industry, with a report by Grand View Research projecting the wellness tourism market to be worth USD 1.2 trillion by 2026. On the other hand, medical tourism involves traveling specifically for a treatment, surgery or enhancement. Some of the most popular procedures include orthopedic surgery, cosmetic surgery, and cardiac surgery, among others. The bottom line is, agencies, governments and organizations should have a clear understanding of the service they provide, and propagate the same to travelers, in order to avoid any major confusion.

Below are some of the most popular destinations for medical tourism:

COUNTRYMEDICAL TOURISM SCENARIO
SingaporeWitnesses more than 500,000 foreign tourist visits per year; helps in saving around 25-40% of what would have been required in the United States.Has set up International Patient Service Centers (IPSCs) that mediate between international patients and Singaporean healthcare providers.
MexicoA popular choice for carrying out procedures and surgeries, especially among the US population, with savings of 40-65% achieved as compared to what would have been required in the US.The current political tension between Mexico and the US may act as a deterrent to market growth in the near future.
Costa RicaHas seen a high influx of medical tourists from the US and Canada, and is highly renowned for its offerings in dentistry and cosmetic surgeries.Cost of healthcare services is 45-65% lower than that in the US, which has increased attractiveness among medical tourists.Presence of the CheTica Ranch in San Jose offers a relaxing and ambient environment for recovering patients.
IndiaOne of the most visited countries for medical and healthcare procedures, on account of low costs as well as the presence of highly specialized and experienced departments.The presence of an expanded visa policy has also enhanced the appeal of the country for global medical tourists.Average savings made for different procedures are in the range of 65-90% of what would have been incurred in the US.
SpainWitnesses a heavy influx of medical tourists from North Africa, Middle East, and the British Isles for advanced cosmetic, orthopedic, and dental procedures.Presence of beautiful locations and pristine beaches help in accelerating recovery, thus driving tourists towards the country.Savings made for different procedures are in the range of 30-70% of what is required in the United States.
IsraelThe country has a high international reputation in the medical tourism field, while also offering excellent patient experience and quality of healthcare.A large portion of medical tourists seek IVF and other fertility treatments, thus driving the industry growth in the region. Sheba Medical Center is a well-known provider of complex surgical procedures and has an international medical tourism division.

First, some facts and statistics

As stated earlier, medical and wellness tourism has been a substantially popular concept among the global population, and the numbers certainly back up this statement. As per Patients Beyond Borders, the number of US medical tourists has been estimated at around 2.2 million in 2020. Even though the healthcare infrastructure in the country is quite strong, there is a significant outflow of people in need for treatment or surgery, mainly to the Latin American and Asian countries on account of lower incurred costs. The average savings incurred range from 20% to as high as 90%, which explains the appeal of medical and wellness tourism.

According to a report on the Medical Tourism industry by Grand View Research, the wellness tourism market is expected to advance at a substantial CAGR of 21.1% between 2020-2027. Some of the major growth factors include the development of the economy through generation of direct foreign exchange income, while also offering employment and business opportunities to the regional population. Additionally, the industry also provides a lifeline for affiliated businesses such as pharmaceuticals, healthcare devices, and tourism, which is an attractive proposition for market growth.

The advent of COVID-19

The medical tourism industry seemed well on track for substantial growth until the start of the new decade – that is before the coronavirus pandemic struck the globe. As per the Medical Tourism Association, Spain and France have been the leading European countries when it comes to medical tourism, with the former being well-known among medical tourists for its orthopedic and eye surgeries, as well as post-operative care services. France offers high-quality cosmetic, dental and bariatric surgeries, while also being known for the shortest hospital waiting times according to the WHO. 

However, with the pandemic having a severe effect on the European countries, with thousands being hospitalized due to the virus, the medical and healthcare sector in the region has seen a severe strain on resources. As of September 2020, the region has seen 4.1 million confirmed cases and more than 200,000 deaths. The pandemic led the economies, both developing and developed, into a downward spiral. As a result, national borders were sealed off, shutting down the movement of people across countries. With travel restrictions being imposed on a global scale, the medical tourism sector was effectively shut down. 

The airline industry across the globe has borne the brunt of the pandemic, with lay-offs and operational shutdowns becoming too frequent during this period. Elective surgeries, which are substantial revenue generators for the medical tourism industry, also witnessed cancellations, with the peak period of the pandemic seeing more than 25 million such procedures being canceled. According to Medical Tourism Resource Guide, the month of March reportedly saw 100,000 medical trips being canceled, when travel restrictions were being put into place, while the third quarter of 2020 saw around 500,000 such cancellations. 

The road ahead 

Even though the pandemic has been relentless in its approach, particularly in North America and Europe, the medical tourism industry will need to stand again soon enough, through different means. According to Advisory Board, the industry will require engaging and retaining of customers (medical tourists), such as through building loyalty with international travelers, assessing the urgency for domestic airline travelers, and restricting outmigration by highlighting safety for domestic ground travelers.

In this period, how providers engage with consumers will determine the shaping of the medical tourism industry in the long run. The presence of virtual options can go a long way in retaining and engaging with consumers. Additionally, it would be important to highlight to these medical tourists that their needs would be well taken care of, through the implementation of highly comprehensive safety protocols. How the institutions’ relay this safety information also holds high importance. According to a recent ReviveHealth survey, 57% of the respondents want to hear more from their local providers regarding COVID-19, which presents a great opportunity to competitors for customer retention.

In conclusion

The medical tourism industry will be keenly observing the COVID-19 pandemic, with the International Medical Travel Journal predicting the sector to be affected till 2021. With the majority of the countries still hesitant to open their international borders, healthcare providers will need to implement alternative strategies in order to retain customers. Many experienced players in the industry have admitted that the immediate future looks bleak, thus making it critical for them to constantly think outside the box.

References

  1. https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2020/07/20/medical-tourism
  2. https://www.health-tourism.com/medical-tourism/statistics/
  3. https://www.magazine.medicaltourism.com/article/top-10-medical-tourism-destinations-world
  4. https://www.magazine.medicaltourism.com/article/covid-19-and-the-future-of-medical-tourism-across-europe
  5. https://medicaltourismresourceguide.com/covid-19-pandemic-impact-medical-tourism/

 

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