Safety and Trust is the new watchword for any business looking to operate successfully in the new normal. Given the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic, protecting oneself from the COVID-19 scourge is everyone’s survival instinct. As a result, you run the risk of losing a plethora of clients if you cannot guarantee their safety to a considerable extent.
Medical travel was one of the worst-hit industries by the coronavirus pandemic; with global travel restrictions crippling international travel and shutting down medical travel businesses. The industry rapidly screeched to a halt within months of banning international travel.
However, with travel activities and border operations gradually returning to normal, the medical travel industry is returning to new patient needs and demands, chief of which is safety and trust. This has become a key metric shaping the future of the medical travel ecosystem. Health buyers and payers have shifted their focus to ensuring a medical travel program has implemented concrete strategies to mitigate COVID-19 risk throughout the continuum of care.
According to the State of Employer Healthcare & Benefits 2020-2021 survey conducted by Global Healthcare Resources, 91 percent of respondents—mostly employers, brokers, and payers—say they were more likely to choose a hospital or healthcare provider that is compliant with COVID-19 guidelines and is duly accredited/certified for safety than one without COVID-19 guidelines, certifications, or accreditations. This includes not only healthcare providers and hospitals but also other medical tourism stakeholders, including hotels and airlines.
Meeting this crucial need boosts trust and confidence in your medical travel program, potentially attracting an influx of health payers and buyers to your market.
Limit physical contact where possible
Essentially, medical travel programs must embed COVID-19 risk mitigation measures into the fabric of their programs. All medical travel businesses involved in the patient journey must demonstrate capacity to prevent and contain the contagion.
Beginning from pre-travel communications, physical contact with prospective clients should be limited to lower the risk of exposure. Health travel organizations through their international patient department should conduct extensive pre-travel workup and interaction virtually to restrict physical contact to what’s absolutely necessary.
This pre-travel workup also includes pre-travel COVID-19 tests with arrangements for follow-up COVID-19 tests upon arrival.
Design safety policies
The cardinal focus of safety is reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission among the general population and not just the medical tourists. Strict prevention strategies for staff of medical travel centers include regular COVID-19 testing or administration of COVID-19 vaccinations, and early detection and isolation of potential cases of COVID-19.
Achieving good containment requires a policy that ensures staff and healthcare workers in a hospital are closely monitored for COVID-19 symptoms or exposure. Screening tools, such as COVID-19 tracing devices, symptom checkers and questionnaires, and routine health checks are pivotal to achieving this. Absence of these detection and diagnostic systems may indicate that your medical travel center has a high risk of transmitting the virus.
Risk Mitigation Strategies
Given the nature and transmission routes of the coronavirus, the physical environment of your center must be modified in line with local and global safety guidelines.
These include clear policies for safety distance within your facilities and the immediate surroundings. Ensure office spaces, hospital room beds, and workstations are spaced out sufficiently to limit the spread of the virus.
Further, hospital HVAC systems should be remodeled to allow a sufficient amount of clean air into the indoor space. For instance, replace ventilation filters with high-efficiency air filters, such as HEPA or MERV, to limit the accumulation of infectious particles in the air. You could also use mobile filtration devices in areas where there’s a large emission of potentially infectious particles to trap aerosols as soon as they are released.
The use of face masks should also be implemented as a physical barrier against respiratory droplets. It is important for medical travel providers to specify the type of face masks that is required by staff and visitors, as different types offer different levels of protection. The medical travel organization should also create an inventory of face masks to be provided to patients and their companions.
These should also be combined with staff training on basic public health measures, including hand hygiene, regular cleaning of surfaces, and cough hygiene.
In addition to these risk-modulating measures, medical travel programs need to also design a swift containment and isolation plan for potential cases or clusters of the infection. If a patient within the hospital gets the infection, what measures are in place to ensure the case is detected fast and isolated to prevent further transmission of the infection. The risk of transmission in poorly ventilated indoor spaces is significantly higher even with safety distance.
These actions must also include preparedness for potential pandemics and not just COVID-19. This requires solid surveillance models and networks with local and global public health agencies to monitor infectious diseases and predict likely outbreaks.
Digital solutions play a key role in the fight against COVID-19. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, hospital systems and healthcare providers leveraged digital platforms to bypass the barriers of COVID-19 restrictions and shortage of hospital resources. These platforms were integral not only in meeting pent-up patient care needs and providing remote patient monitoring, they were also essential in providing screening and treatment for COVID-19 patients.
Medical travel hubs should integrate these digital solutions into their operations to ease the patient care journey. These include telemedicine platforms for follow-ups, remote patient monitoring, and even in-patient post-operative care. Digital tools offer closed-loop digital systems that allow doctors monitor patient vital indices from anywhere in the world.
Other innovative tech solutions can also be incorporated into a medical travel facility to modulate the risk of COVID-19 transmission. A key example is the use of CO2 (carbon dioxide) meters that measure air cleanliness by detecting the air’s CO2 levels. The lower the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, the lower the chances of infected aerosols ladened in it.
GHA COVID-19 Guidelines for Medical Travel Programs
These outlined strategies and more are components of guidelines and certifications designed by Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) that demonstrates that a medical travel program has developed concrete risk mitigation strategies for the current and future pandemics. GHA COVID-19 Guidelines for Medical Travel Programs and the Certification of Conformance with GHA COVID-19 Guidelines demonstrate to patients, buyers, and other key stakeholders that a medical travel program’s (located within a hospital or ambulatory center) operational protocols, practices, and procedures have undergone an external review and reflect international best practices designed to keep traveling patients safe as operations resume during or post COVID-19.
The guidelines are designed to assist medical travel programs to keep current as they operate within a ‘new normal,’ with a philosophy of risk mitigation along the entire medical travel care continuum, including pre-arrival, travel, accommodations, admission and treatment, discharge and follow up home. The Certification of Conformance also includes a 2-hour online training on the guidelines which is available to all employees of a hospital or ambulatory center, especially for staff working in the medical travel program.
GHA COVID-19 Guidelines for Medical Travel Programs were developed after consultation with multiple medical travel programs and industry stakeholders. Based on this feedback, the Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) Program recognized the need to develop a set of guidelines that are uniquely focused on mitigating COVID-19 infection risks for medical travel patients and companions throughout the entire care continuum, including providing guidance for travel, as well as interactions with the healthcare organization, hotel and ground transportation.