The fastest growing outbound tourism sector within the Middle East is medical tourism - whereby people living in one country travel abroad to receive medical, dental or surgical treatment in order to make significant cost savings over what they would be paying at home, according to Jonathan Edelheit, president of the Medical Tourism Authority.
Speaking during a seminar at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai last month, Edelheit said that Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, India and the Philippines were becoming popular choices for patients from the Middle East as well as those from Europe and the United States to visit as medical tourists.
He said that about 62,000 UAE nationals sought medical treatment in Thai hospitals in the first seven months of 2006.
“The economics are simple. In America, a heart procedure could set you back around $100,000. In India and Thailand, for instance, that same operation would cost one tenth of that amount. And with the health care services in a state of crisis in so many parts of the world - not least in the US, Canada and the UK - medical tourism becomes a very attractive solution,” said Edelheit.
“Consider, also, that in the US alone, 50 million citizens have no health insurance in a country where health insurance is the backbone of the way people pay for treatment. In addition, 120 million people in the US have no dental insurance.
“Meanwhile across the border in Canada, as well as in the UK, many patients have to endure long waiting times which could actually be the difference between survival and death in extreme cases. Add that the quality of medical care has been declining for a very long time and it’s not surprising that medical tourism is showing such strong growth in these areas too.”
There are many benefits of getting treatment abroad, he said, but the overriding benefits are that patients can receive immediate treatment at much lower costs. Reasons for this include lower labour costs, lower risk of malpractice litigation, lower insurance costs, lower supplier costs, no obligation on the hospital to have to treat the uninsured, and often, more efficient hospitals.
Some Middle East countries such as Jordan and the UAE, have launched initiatives to meet this growing demand as they look to establish themselves as world class, cost effective alternative destinations for the booming medical tourism market.
However, to achieve a global reputation of medical excellence and affordability, Edelheit believes the region must continue to foster an environment that is increasingly favourable for the healthcare sector’s private operators.
“It is important for Middle East governments to continue creating an increased role for the private healthcare sector as it has the skill set and resources to help build more hospitals, implement high levels of quality care and establish infrastructure much faster than the public sector. This is the key factor in the region becoming a sought after destination for medical tourists,” said Edelheit.
“Regional countries building their own healthcare centres could find that it takes them years to build up a suitable reputation to attract these tourists, whilst the fact that they would always have to import foreign staff to man the hospitals means they would always be at a cost disadvantage to those countries using their own people to run the services.”
He believed that the GCC would never be able to compete on price with countries such as Thailand and India, as they would have to import much of what was needed including personnel. Quality and price were of paramount importance, and the GCC could not compete on price alone, they would have to offer a high quality of service too.
“It is simply no good expecting that the moment you open your doors, people will be queuing up to use your services. This mentality can only fail. The hospital will also have to be transparent in terms of developing trust since one negative story can erase 1,000 positive ones. And the hospitals will need to market themselves aggressively as they are now facing so competition across Asia,” said Edelheit.
The UAE has gone someway already to addressing this issue, with local governments actively increasing their efforts to woo high-end medical providers, such as Abu Dhabi’s association with the Cleveland Clinic and John Hopkins Medicine and Dubai aligning with Harvard Medical International, to help raise medical operating standards to international levels.
“Medical tourism is growing exponentially every year especially with more and more patients travelling overseas for urgent and cosmetic care. I believe the key issues going forward will be whether the Middle East can market itself successfully to an international audience and, as a result, build a “brand” reputation for premium, affordable healthcare,” added Edelheit.