Sources vary about the potential size of the African patient travel market. Suffice to say that opportunity for medical tourism is beyond measure.
As the second-largest continent in the world — 54 countries and more than 1.1 billion people – Africa has a vastly underfunded local healthcare system. The poorest 25 nations in the world are African.
The Gross Domestic Product of the Nigeria, the wealthiest of African countries, won’t crack the list of 25 wealthiest nations. The scarce healthcare resources are spent primarily on controlling non-communicable diseases and decreasing the maternity mortality rate.
Some 25-35 billion dollars are needed to meet the population’s health needs this decade. Falling well short of this goal is likely. Only 10 percent of healthcare spending is invested in capital equipment. This means hospitals and clinics are poorly equipped.
The private sector accounts for 50 percent of all financing and spending on healthcare. If Africa follows the lead of other developing countries in the world, 90 percent of the wealth will be controlled by less than 10 percent of the population.
Affluent Africans are prime targets for medical tourism. In Nigeria, alone, travel to India for healthcare generated more than US $260 million in spending in 2012. Patients also travel to countries other than India; notably South Africa, Dubai, China, and Malaysia, as well as traditional destinations in the United Kingdom and United States.
Countries that attract Nigerian patients share some common strategies. Language differences, challenging infrastructure, business peculiarities, regulatory restrictions and delicate banking institutional practices are just a few hurdles that market players have to negotiate to participate in the African healthcare market. Among the most critical tip to offset these obstacles:
1. Get On the Ground
Communication and business practices successful elsewhere in the world do not work in Nigeria. The challenges are daunting enough even when an investor has a local presence. To consider entering or achieving success in this market without a local presence is unthinkable.
Strategies for achieving an effective local presence are numerous. Some companies have “agents” on the ground that market and advertise healthcare offerings. Others simply purchase or invest in local primary healthcare facilities.
Other companies access the population through life businesses partner with local governments to gain “preferred” provider status. Whatever the strategy, the business goal remains the same; profitable access to a population sector with disposable income and a predisposition to healthcare travel.
2. Corporate Responsibility = Corporate Returns
Extracting wealth from any African country without investing is difficult. Nigeria is no different. Any program that adds value by helping residents with extraordinary expenses is bound to attract attention.
Programs that offer higher education to residents have been successful. Countries that wish to attract Nigerian patients can offer college and other educational scholarships to encourage study in healthcare-related fields. The scholarship recipients serve as ambassadors of the healthcare providers and countries in which they are domiciled.
Communication channels must be both innovative and conventional to reach targeted markets. Conventional channels, such as billboard and radio advertising, are successful. Print advertising is also very effective. Because English is the official business language, advertising campaigns are spared the complexity of translation into local dialects.
Social media is an effective marketing tool; not only for reaching the young adults, which is fast becoming the major population segment, but to also influence affluent residents, who possess the hardware to access the various channels.
4. Partner with Primary Care Physicians
Medical tourism is a reliable tool for primary care physicians to penetrate the market. Nigeria is among the most-populous countries in the world and boasts a tremendous foreign resident population compared to most developed nations.
Immigration laws in most developed countries in Africa including Nigeria have attracted foreign residents from nations across the globe. These residents find travel connections that often retain most of the comforts of home.
This relationship with Nigerian primary care physicians must be carefully managed to preserve benefits for both domestic providers and the travel destinations. One bad travel experience can severely damage a destination’s market share and reputation.
5. Cut Costs
Many Nigerians are tired of being gouged by developed countries, and are now actively seeking healthcare elsewhere including Malaysia, Thailand and India. Nigeria has a reputation for awarding government contracts to the highest bidder; a practice contrary to developed nations.
Nigerian philosophy reflects a belief that the highest bidder demonstrates the best knowledge of the local business environment, where costs can easily multiply due to unforeseen circumstances.
Investors must differentiate between the cost of attracting business and the cost of delivering services. Unforeseen costs are common factors, but investors in healthcare travel must deliver transparent costs to remain competitive.
Some Nigerian patients can afford to travel abroad for healthcare and have access to a large number of potential medical destinations. Many of these destinations make profits by marking up costs; making affordable pricing that much more challenging.
6. Facilitate Travel
Both patient and companions contribute substantially to the overall price of medical tourism. Destinations with affordable and convenient travel routes immediately gain a competitive advantage. Nigerians and travelers from other countries can choose options in the United Kingdom and United States that help to control affordable and convenient travel elsewhere.
Although there are many marketing tactics that can overcome the lack of affordable and convenient travel means, they are less successful in the healthcare industry than in traditional tourism markets. All things equal, Nigerians like to travel as efficiently and affordable as possible.
Visa assistance is a key feature to gain a competitive advantage in the Nigerian market. Countries, such as India which have active and local-friendly visa access services, have a competitive advantage. Concierge services that offer many “comforts of home” tend to resonate with Nigerian travelers and, more importantly, assist in word-of-mouth marketing, which is so crucial to raising awareness.
7. Offer High Quality Treatment
Travelers are sensitive to the quality of treatment the purchase. Horror stories abound about deceptive practices of dishonest travel brokers who represent unethical healthcare providers. By the time the truth surfaces, money has already exchanged hands and the short-term market players have disappeared.
Obtaining refunds are, perhaps, more difficult. Surgery outcomes, infection rates and statistics that demonstrate high quality treatment can erase tension and build trust among buyers.
8. Post Treatment Communication
The local primary physician is the lifeline between healthcare providers and patients. The success of healthcare travel is the basis for increased patient caseloads. Local physicians that partner with foreign-based healthcare providers increase their appeal and strengthen their competitiveness in local markets.
Similar to doctors who may have, for example, obtained medical education from a prestigious university, healthcare providers can market increased patient bases to attract more business. Patient testimonials are sound business.
Nigerians – at least the wealthiest of the overall population – are poised to accept changes in the delivery of healthcare services.
International medical tourism destinations that market procedures performed consistently well by doctors educated in developed countries who offer services at lower costs will attract Nigerian markets.
About the Author
OneWorld Global Healthcare Solutions is a registered medical tourism company in Nigeria that employs two local chaperone doctors who have a combined 40 years of experience.