It’s been the most challenging time for medical travel destinations around the world with some medical travel programs seeing zero bookings and live appointments for several months on end, while other destinations have been successfully up and running and beating out pre-pandemic number of medical tourists. Market estimates for the growth of medical travel for 2020/2021 were rapidly reversed as the world stood still to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
But with advanced treatments and vaccines in the works, there seems to be hope on the horizon for countries and their medical tourism programs. In fact, medical travel hubs are leveraging these interventions to drive some form of tourism, including vaccine tourism, as initial steps to reviving the entire industry. While some destinations put their programs on hold, others aggressively invested in branding, infrastructure, and leveraging the opportunity to take change the patters of where patients travel to.
However, what if after all is said and done about COVID-19, another ravaging pandemic emerges, are medical travel stakeholders prepared to bring the disease to its knees before it hits or not?
Although the novel coronavirus pandemic came as a rude shock to the world, scientists had projected that it could happen at any time. Investigation previous pandemics and epidemics have revealed the huge potential of another virus or a previous virus mutating into a global threat. A year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, leading scientists and researchers have once more made projections of a possible viral pandemic in the next decade or two.
Given the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the medical travel industry, stakeholders in the business must begin to look into the future and develop strategies not only to contain the current pandemic and set the industry on its tracks but also strategies and surge capacities to tackle future pandemics without derailing the industry.
Develop Effective Containment and Surveillance Strategies
The containment and risk-mitigation strategies employed to combat the coronavirus pandemic are essentially the same for managing any viral outbreak. Basic hygiene practices, rapid detection of cases, and swift isolation and quarantine are the bedrock of mitigating an infectious disease and curbing its spread.
Looking back at the SARS outbreak in 2003, these strategies were integral to controlling the infection and limiting its spread. Even in the absence of curative drugs or vaccines for the infection, coordinated strategies of containment and collaboration between international researchers and health institutions led to successful control of the outbreak. Similarly, robust surveillance and swift identification of a new outbreak of Ebola in February 2021 were essential to containing the infection.
Medical travel programs need to also develop effective surveillance to swiftly detect new mutants or viruses in humans or other animals. These healthcare institutions may develop or collaborate with a network of infectious disease departments, research centers that actively investigate emerging infectious agents, study potential hosts, reservoirs, sources, and primary transmission routes of these microbes to humans. These programs must also develop a fast communication system to swiftly report these cases to local and international health authorities for a broader response.
While many governments and medical travel destinations have implemented effective risk mitigation strategies, these measures need to become the new normal of medical travel. Medical travel programs must embed infection control into the fabric of their operations. It should not be limited to dealing with disease outbreaks but as a proactive measure to curb potential contagion.
These are more are components of a new certification 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. The Certification of Conformance with GHA COVID-19 Guidelines demonstrates 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.
Leverage Collaborative Efforts
Rapid response to an epidemic or a pandemic requires extensive collaboration across industries. We could observe the remarkable collaboration between several sectors of the healthcare ecosystem and outside of it in ensuring the coronavirus pandemic was controlled. Medical devices, software developers, therapeutics, researchers, engineers, pharmaceutics, and regulatory agencies worked in concert to develop products to contain the virus.
The distribution of these products is a good example of the impact of collaboration on fighting an infectious disease outbreak. Vaccines, therapeutics, and personal protective equipment were transported swiftly across borders through distribution chains that involved transportation, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and regulatory companies.
To be adequately prepared for subsequent pandemics, medical travel destinations must scale up these components to ensure a swift response.
For example, in producing viable vaccines to break the spread of the infection, the needs of different countries and populations must be considered. For a pharmaceutical company to produce a vaccine for several countries, it must understand temperature requirements and other conditions best suited for the population. This, in turn, means different transport conditions and storage types, which requires scaling up manufacturing surge capacities.
We could also observe the rapid adoption of digital solutions during the pandemic, allowing software developers and IT experts to work with infectious disease institutes, health authorities, and even the WHO in creating digital drivers for containing the virus. These collaborations led to the fast development of screening apps, contact tracing software, digital surveillance applications, and vaccine certificates.
Governments and countries must continue to leverage these platforms and scale up their applications to foster faster and more efficient digital solutions to managing infectious disease outbreaks.
Leverage Data and Analytics
The response to the coronavirus pandemic generated large volumes of data, which keeps growing as the fight against the pandemic continues. These data provide useful information about the likely trajectory of contagion and the potential emergence of new variants. Therefore, governments and medical institutions must invest in data collection and analytics to deepen their understanding of infectious disease dynamics and developing effective pharmaceutical interventions.
This requires innovative thinking as well. For instance, innovative data collection models such as non-invasive monitors could collect data useful for categorizing patients into different risk groups, making it easy to determine who needs intensive treatment, ICU, or who requires testing and isolation more. This is where wearable technology comes in.
To prepare for future pandemics, countries and institutions must create a secure, global system where these data are shared, analyzed, and constantly monitored. It cannot be limited to one health institution or country as such contagions reach global proportions and can potentially shut down the travel sector.
In addition to collecting and leveraging data, medical tourism destinations need to build systems to keep security breaches in check. Investment in data protection and software engineering would help governments develop secure data channels that allow the protected exchange of relevant data across the world.
Although the coronavirus pandemic is almost over and international borders are nearly fully open, there’s still work to be done. Medical travel programs need to develop and upscale surge capacities, strategies, and resources to prepare for future pandemics. In the new normal, this is the new metric that will drive the success of a medical tourism program; demonstrating your commitment to pandemic containment and preparedness. For this, Global Healthcare Resources has designed a certification that demonstrates to all industry stakeholders your capacity to safeguard patient health during and after the coronavirus pandemic.