Destination Branding in Medical Tourism

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In the highly competitive industry of medical tourism, branding is the future. Branding will play a critical role in the future of telemedicine, genomics medicine, stem cell treatments, and will be the dominant determinant for direct contracting for hospitals and healthcare systems but what’s in a brand?

Brand, for any corporate organization including a health tourist destination, is an essential quality which reflects its reputation, uniqueness of its product and services, customer ratings, values, price, skilled staff and customer care, and service outcomes.

In the health travel scene, the clinical outcomes, the expertise of medical personnel, innovative technology, the price of health services, and availability of convenient air travel and accommodation services are integral for branding success.

In the past, brands didn’t matter a lot to healthcare facilities, even though there were hospitals with state-of-the-art facilities. However, now that the medical industry has become a marketplace, and health travel has become a growing phenomenon, branding is becoming more critical.

Branding does for health tourist destinations what it does for the beverage industry, for example. Why do people buy a particular non-alcoholic beverage, say Pepsi, over others? The answer is in its brand, and this could also be related to healthcare facilities and even healthcare providers.

More than 100 countries throughout the world have made entry into the medical tourism market, but only a handful of them have paid critical attention to building a medical tourism destination brand identity.

Destination Branding

The first step in developing a brand is to assume perception of a destination from a public perspective. Patients seeking health care in a given destination outside their home country have their options driven by a host of factors and not just cost savings and quality of healthcare services.

Destination branding takes a collective effort to provide the best patient experience. It includes, for example, strong involvement of the airline industry to ensure swift and incentivized air travel for international patients, facilities for easy visa process, patient security and a sense of respect for cultural differences, accommodation services, excellent clinical services and effective follow-up processes from the tourist facility.

These are the brand touch points and always involve a synergy between governmental efforts and private sector investments. This will require efforts by the country’s tourism boards, private and public airlines, and approved facilitators.

However, a non-modifiable factor – geographical location – remains a key component of destination branding.

In 2016, the medical tourism market in Jordan dropped by 40% not because of a decline in the quality of healthcare provided but as a result of visa restrictions and conflict in four nearby countries – Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya, all of which have been ravaged with severe conflicts. This location of the relatively peaceful Jordan makes it unattractive to Europeans, Asians, and Americans.

Jordan has built a reputation in cardiovascular and orthopedic surgical procedures and had seen a massive influx of international patients to the country prior to the emergence of these problems.

Building a destination brand is a continuous process aimed at recreating all components of healthcare delivery for international patients and establishing unique selling points to boost competitiveness.

Second to destination branding is the hospital branding which serves to recreate certain aspects of healthcare, either by creating disruptive innovations such as the recent digital healthcare revolution in the United Arab Emirates or building strong expertise in an area of medicine that is rarely available in other countries, for example, certain kinds of eyelid cosmetic surgeries performed in South Korea. This healthcare branding is a form of “innovative product” presented to the international audience.

Not only will an innovative product draw publicity, but it will also attract technocrats in the medical tourism industry, who will study the innovative product and services developed in the destination using it as a benchmark for the national healthcare delivery, and investments from foreign and domestic investors which will further strengthen the market.

Brand Marketing

Brand marketing comes next after building a destination and healthcare branding and two key steps are essential in marketing a successful brand in health tourism. These include creating effective brand ambassadors and getting target customers or leads to amplify the brand.

Brand ambassadors in destination branding include all stakeholders involved in health tourism in a country: the hospitals and their staff, health leaders, and government agencies. The customers make up the external or secondary brand ambassadors.

Marketing is very key to keeping a country at the top of the game in health tourism and many of them fail at this point because of weak marketing strategies. An essential destination brand ambassador is the government and one crucial marketing strategy by government bodies is to relax visa laws and to enact laws which will make health travel easier for international patients.

In Thailand, for example, the government has adopted new laws which permit medical tourists from Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Peru, Chile, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar to stay in the country for 90 days without a visa.

Health facilities or health ministries may seek the services of medical tourism branding experts, such as the Medical Tourism Association (MTA), to guide them in building practical strategies for building a strong brand. In 2012, the Medical Tourism Association designed a destination branding program to help destinations improve their brand visibility in the international market.

For healthcare facilities, a good marketing strategy involves defining what the brand stands for and employing effective methods of reaching target patients. An ineffectively expressed brand may be a weak point, resulting in low yield and reduced attractiveness of a health tourist destination.

Therefore, an international patient department with highly-trained staff is critical in communicating the brand of a hospital or clinic with international patients. The workforce in this department requires training in handling cultural differences and efficiently communicating with health tourists. Some hospitals also establish international offices as a way of reaching target customers.

However, digital marketing has become a vital tool in promoting a facility’s brand. In the growing industry of technology, digitalized marketing has become a method used by international patient departments. This platform provides unrestricted communication between prospective customers and a hospital. It affords patients quick access to experts even before scheduling an appointment.

Many hospitals have also taken advantage of the social media space to advertise their selling points – displaying their medical facilities, competence in an area of medical care, and success stories from patients who have undergone treatment in the facility.

Branding sets a health tourist destination or facility apart in the growing market. Patients ultimately are drawn to certain destinations based on an interplay of the push and pull factors which affect a destination’s brand. Therefore, successful destinations are those who have developed an excellent brand equity by influencing these factors.