Medical Tourism in a Viral World

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An updated Medical Tourism Index lays out the international terrain for health travel, but the impact of COVID-19 on such a global industry remains to be seen.

The new 2020-21 Medical Tourism Index provides critically important data for governments and all stakeholders around the world to consider, but it is also incomplete. The novel coronavirus is currently putting a tremendous strain on healthcare systems and world economies, which will alter the size and shape of the medical tourism market in unpredictable ways.


This intersection of measured commodities and unknown variables is the best way to describe our updated compendium of information in the new edition of the MTI 2020-2021, which offers a comprehensive scan of the health and medical travel industry amid this global pandemic. Our Index provides unparalleled profiles and snapshots of the Medical Travel Industry to every stakeholder in the industry care continuum, but it cannot possibly account for the high degree of variance and unpredictability that coronavirus has injected into the international healthcare marketplace.


In the years before the pandemic, medical tourism was an exploding industry. In 20 short years, globalization and technology grew health travel from a virtually nonexistent quirk of the ultrawealthy to an international medical staple that dozens of governments believed pivotal to their economic future. We have watched as groundbreaking infrastructure and world-class doctors have steadily cropped up in every corner of the world, from Brazil to Singapore.


Now, the specter of COVID-19 changes everything. None of us know how long this virus will remain active or how many waves will threaten the world with new outbreaks. Dozens of countries have instituted temporary restrictions on international travel that completely impede the existence of medical tourism.


The business of health will see the ripple effects from this pandemic for quite some time. Elective surgeries have been cancelled, supplies have been decimated, and disaster planning & emergency preparedness have taken center stage, with an unprecedented burden on health services. Convention centers, stadiums, cruise ships, and hotels have had to reconfigure space to accommodate dire healthcare demand. No expert or computer model can accurately predict how long such our status quo modern healthcare operation will be interrupted.


If there is a bright side to all this, operating in uncharted territory provides a chance for innovation and restructuring the systems that dictate how health services are delivered. The COVID-19 era has seen a radical shift toward remote and more affordable healthcare methodologies, with fewer resources expended. Telehealth is at the epicenter of more efficient healthcare delivery, keeping non-coronavirus patients home and freeing up much needed bed space at the hospital. This will almost certainly pave the way toward a more robust telehealth future.


In the aftermath of an international pandemic such as the novel coronavirus, many people are likely to stick to more conservative methods of acquiring health services, and the post-viral effects on recreation and tourism-based industries is a complete unknown. Even if the virus receded next week, many people are unlikely to feel comfortable getting on a plane or traveling to another country without major assurances of safety and sanitation that must emanate from every touchpoint on the patient journey. For all these reasons, the medical tourism industry is at the most complicated point in its relatively young lifespan.


Yet, the Medical Tourism Index is still a valuable tool for the many destinations and hospitals still seeking to count on health and medical tourism as an economic cornerstone. There is no other industry quite like it in terms of its ability to combine healthcare, hospitality, and tourism. There is no time like the present for tourism bodies to consider medical tourism as a new potential economic diversification strategy. Nations that handled the pandemic well may come out ahead in medical travel, with more attractive healthcare offerings and a greater level of trust in a destination’s ability to take care of its people.


COVID-19 has decimated travel and tourism for now, but many destinations are focused on positive brand awareness campaigns that tread on the nostalgia of that last great vacation or international trip. This certainly will open many new doors for medical travelers who are seeking new opportunities via healthcare systems that have reimagined their service offerings specifically with health travelers in mind. Now would be the most prudent time to reassess a marketing strategy, revamp an online presence, or plan a digital campaign to attract medical travelers.


All of those strategies can be shaped by our MTI tool. The original Medical Tourism Index was created in 2014; this recent update is spawned from data collected in January 2020, which has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the collection of data prior to the COVID-19 pandemic could make this data less subject to pandemic response bias. On the other hand, it may eventually prove less actionable in the short term, depending on how deeply the virus modifies the existing medical tourism landscape.


Overall, the Medical Tourism Index rankings consider a variety of factors, including destination environment, patient experience, existing levels of medical tourism, and traditional tourism appeal. Individual destination profiles include an overview of the location, both historical and medical, as well as analysis of its ranking and a list of its overall strengths and weaknesses. The data is provided using the American consumer perspective survey; accordingly, the United States is not included in the ranking of destinations to eliminate potential bias.


We expect that engaged healthcare professionals who are looking to make the most of their medical travel sectors will use this data to shape the future of their growth and address areas of concern that existed prior to the worldwide spread of COVID-19. Additionally, the effects of the novel coronavirus will place new responsibilities on all destinations to retain rankings and secure consumer trust.


For one thing, the return of a semi-normalized healthcare market is likely to bring a tidal wave of pent-up demand on secondary or elective procedures. Many medical tourism hotspots trade on specializations like dentistry or plastic surgery, filling their schedules with international clients who have traveled specifically to their destination for specific procedures. However, after some destinations have seen delayed operations for months on end, catching up on backlogged appointments and procedures may dominate the remainder of the 2020 calendar year. Some facilities could work all day for weeks on end and never see an international patient, simply because local medical backlogs are so significant.


Eventually, though, some semblance of normalcy will return to the health travel sector. The rebound could be in early 2021; it could also come before that for organizations and destinations seizing the opportunity to hone in on the backlog of medical service seekers now willing to travel. The development and efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine will also greatly impact the timeline. Whenever industry operations bounce back to a reasonable facsimile of their pre-virus conditions, international partnerships, certifications, and accreditations will be more important than ever to help build trust and assurance that organizations are focused on quality and the safety of their patients. In a world where healthcare consumers are likely to act extra judiciously in selecting a tourism-based course of treatment, destinations that can clearly communicate safety and expertise will win a high market share.


Aspiring medical tourism cities and healthcare destinations should be pro-active in setting up relationships with airports, hotels, and recovery resorts that leverage excellent screening and sanitization processes. In some cases, the economic reboot offered by COVID-19 may even offer a rare chance to redefine a healthcare destination’s reputation. Right now is a great time for destinations to evaluate their current medical travel infrastructure and focus on services lines that may be added based upon shifting consumer demand, reduced risk for travel, and the ever-changing competitive landscape.


The other element that destinations should plan for is heightened communication demand and outreach. While one might expect that the traffic to medical travel websites is likely to decrease in the aftermath of COVID-19, with fewer patients willing to seek out treatment abroad in this time of crisis, this should only be short-term; we likely will see a later surge with economic conditions and unemployment driving consumer price consciousness as a more important factor in the decision-making process for healthcare services. Healthcare destinations should consider a more aggressive approach in setting up relationships with insurance companies and other healthcare purchasers and referrers. Global buyers will be looking for safe, high-quality destinations with a complete patient care continuum on offer for their insureds and clientele. In this time of increased economic strain, savings and financial incentives will be attractive to the corporate referrers and individual medical travelers. Marketing efforts in trade magazines or other enticing commercial locations may be more effective in the coming months.

Ultimately, there are three fundamental questions a good healthcare destination must ask itself right now:

  1. How can we better improve our medical tourism product?
  2. How can we build better referral networks?
  3. How can we navigate the lingering impact of the novel coronavirus?

These topics may or may not be directly tied to each other, but no destination will be successful in the health tourism industry without competent solutions for these questions. The 2020-21 Medical Tourism Index is a tremendous tool for solving the first question; as for the third, health travel destinations may just need to be flexible and innovative in their approach to a rebounding market that’s novel in its own right. COVID-19 leaves the medical tourism community with few easy answers, but if you are considering a strategy on how to navigate the industry in its wake, you are already ahead of many others.