I am writing this article looking out over the Pacific Ocean within the Punta Mita Resort in Mexico. I am here with a family member who is receiving healthcare far away from home. Last September, I was in Costa Rica doing the same thing. This is the perfect setting for medical care with an added recipe of wellness, relaxation, and recovery. Last fall, we traveled for a procedure that would have cost more than $50,000 USD in the US and which wasn’t covered by insurance; this time, it’s something that would have cost us more than $100,000 without any insurance coverage in the U.S.
Mexico has had overwhelming success during the pandemic and is going to continue reaping those rewards for years to come. Maintaining an open border policy where other countries were closed or had severe restrictions boosted Mexico to the top on the list for medical tourism in North America.
Will they be able to keep that standing as other destinations re-boot their medical tourism programs? Many countries, hospitals, and hotels froze their medical tourism programs and initiatives while some invested more. An example of this is South Korea, which continued to promote its medical tourism industry, boosting its ranking and reputation as a global leader in medical travel.
Let’s face it; It’s been a tough few years for medical tourism and wellness travel. Now everything is rebounding. As more countries open up, more medical travel is flowing. This will follow a similar trend to the tourism market, which has exploded this year. According to the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, international tourism saw a 182% year-on-year increase in January-March 2022, with destinations worldwide welcoming an estimated 117 million international arrivals compared to 41 million in Q1 2021.
The pandemic potentially wiped clean the chess board for stakeholders in the medical and wellness travel industry. Will well-established destinations and players continue to be the leaders or will healthcare consumers travel to destinations that were open for business during the pandemic? Will individual players or destination government initiatives keep their positions, who will drop, and who will gain? What will happen next? What are the new rules of the game?
Going forward, trust is going to be a major determinant of a destination’s attractiveness and, in turn, success in the industry. This means no more wild west with no rules or processes. We need standards, best practices, and processes for medical tourism facilitators as well as healthcare providers.
The Medical Tourism Index had been a great tool to measure medical travel destinations by, using three factors to measure destination attractiveness and brand awareness. These key metrics include the medical tourism industry, destination environment, and the quality of services and facilities. These metrics were useful tools for health consumers and payers to make decisions about the best medical travel spot to receive affordable healthcare with quality comparable to that received from the most medically advanced countries in the world.
However, since the pandemic hit the globe, patients and health buyers have taken their requirements up and raised the bar/standard. They do not just want a hospital with the best medical equipment and best trained medical personnel, they want a medical travel destination that can create a worthwhile patient experience from departure to discharge.
Patients and health payers are now more conscious of their wellbeing. Seeing family, friends, and colleagues lose their lives to COVID-19 or develop intense mental stress due to the crisis has made people realize that getting healthcare abroad is not just about receiving prescriptions or undergoing a procedure and then getting discharged, it's much more than that. Simply put, medical travel is now about getting all-round wellness of mind, spirit, and body every step of the way.
People want to feel safe, people want to be confident in the medical travel destination’s capacity to not only provide the specific healthcare needs but also provide an environment that supports their overall wellbeing in all stages of care.
Are they treated for an orthopedic procedure and then have to deal with poor experience at their post-discharge hotel or do they receive a room that is not meant for this specific patient’s case? Do patients have to endure poor hotel service just after receiving treatment for a life-threatening heart condition? Are they left high and dry hustling and plunged into the hassle of providing transport for themselves before and after treatment? Does your medical travel program recognize the need for safety in the context of the pandemic? Are there visible structures to safeguard your patients’ health and mitigate infectious disease spread or do your patients also have to be worried about this?
I was recently at a hospital for medical tourism where they didn’t have the needed medication. Guess what they told the patient? Drive around town to the different pharmacies post-surgery and find the medication, we can’t help you. Wow!
Stakeholders need to up their game and prepare for the needs of patients and their families. What got them by before the pandemic won’t work anymore, there is a higher expectation by healthcare consumers and while it’s hard to gain their trust, it’s easy to lose it.
It's exciting to see the industry rebound and existing players investing in relationships and positioning to meet the new demands of consumers. What’s even more promising is new players entering the market. The industry has been in desperate need of new well-funded medical travel facilitators and we are starting to see these new players emerge.
Healthcare providers are now leveraging medical travel accreditations to get their medical travel programs on track to meet current patient demands and needs. Accreditation offers a third-party validation for a program’s commitment not only to quality healthcare but also to excellent patient experience and safety.
Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) continues to promote the growth and recovery of the industry as it drives more and more healthcare providers to recognize and adopt new standards of global medical travel. Many major players in the international patient care space are now seeking accreditation to demonstrate to the “post-pandemic” pool of health buyers that they prioritize quality, safety, and a wholesome patient experience.
The GHA Accreditation for Medical Travel offers hospitals and ambulatory centers a seal that displays their commitment to a top-tier patient experience from departure to final recovery. The accreditation does not just evaluate the quality of care offered in these centers but also carries out an in-depth review of the organization’s processes, procedures, and policies around treating international patients to ensure they meet global best practices.
Trust will drive a lot of business in the future and I feel GHA helps set the foundation of that trust. With some of my recent medical tourism excursions with family, I keep getting surprised at some of the most common sense things that healthcare providers don’t think about and don’t deliver to medical tourists that undermine the process. Many healthcare providers take for granted that they can treat international healthcare consumers the same as domestic. I think the biggest mistake healthcare providers make is not putting themselves in the shoes of the traveling patient and thinking of their concerns and needs, and learning and having empathy to make them feel totally protected and taken care of.
The rules are gradually changing for medical travel, and as the industry stages a comeback after the dark years of the pandemic, medical programs that have these certifications and accreditations will see a greater long-term sustainable growth from medical travel, as medical travelers have now experienced a paradigm shift in what they consider to be “health.” Stakeholders must keep adapting to these changes and position themselves to be key players in the industry or lose out to those who do.