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Unleashing the Full Potential of Your Medical Travel Program

Technology & Innovation

Over the past decade, the medical travel industry has become increasingly more competitive as healthcare consumers become more informed about global options demanding more for the patient experience. For someone who is ill or suffers from a serious medical condition, the decision to travel for medical care is not an easy one.

To attract medical travelers Healthcare providers building a global brand must differentiate their services through clinical excellence and patient care. Below you will hear from representatives of three world-class healthcare organizations, located on three continents, discussing specific strategies key to the success of their medical travel programs.

Dr. Erik Fleischman, International Medical Director at Bumrungrad International Hospital

As one of the largest private hospitals in Southeast Asia, Bumrungrad International Hospital provides patients from over 190 countries with a full range of tertiary healthcare services and over 30 specialty centers. It has been featured by CBS’s 60 Minutes, NBC’s Today Show, Time, Newsweek, and other international press as a leader in medical tourism. In 2002, BIH made a strategic decision to target international patients and currently over 50% of its patients are medical travelers.

1. How would you describe your organization’s value proposition as it relates to international patients? Why do they choose BIH for their medical care?

The prime consideration for patients ultimately comes to the best clinical practice available that also fits their financial circumstances. In the Eastern Hemisphere, Bumrungrad meets both these criteria for a very large segment of the potential global patient population attracting medical travelers from over 190 different countries.

2. What strategies or processes have you incorporated to ensure patients have an optimal patient experience before, during and after being treated at your facility?

We start our patient contact and evaluation of their medical reports before the patient ever leaves their home country. Patients can receive a free specialist opinion before they leave home. They can also be contacted and have questions answered in their language before they leave home.

3. What, in your opinion, are two or three of the biggest challenges facing international patients seeking care in another region or country? How do you address those challenges?

Creating a confident environment in a different language and culture is always the biggest challenge in international medical care. Patients want to know that they are heard, understood and responded to in their own culture and language to have full faith in the doctor and the clinical staff. We have created a cultural support staff and full translation/cultural service for over 20 languages at any given time.

The second challenge is assuring patients that they are receiving western quality of care in a non-Western environment. Bumrungrad International Hospital started the trend of Western certification in Asia in 2002 as the first hospital in Asia to get JCI certification. Over 100 hospitals in Asia have followed suit since then.

We have received the most important Western certifications equal to our competitors including Cleveland Clinic, Harvard, Mayo and the best hospitals in London. We believe people want confidence in quality standards and these are the international benchmarks.

4. What role do you see technology playing in the future of medical travel? Are there any particular examples that stand out?

There are two major growth areas in technology that will improve the international patient experience. The first is in communication and information availability which will be available soon in a phone application to consolidate their records and information for faster access. Second is the advancements in medical technology to improve clinical outcomes, lessen side effects and create better diagnoses.

Bumrungrad International Hospital in 2015 was ranked as the 6th best Technology Hospital in the world. The hospital invests quite heavily in new effective technology to meet Western standards of patient treatment equal to Western hospitals.

5. You were recently accredited by Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) for Medical Travel Services. Why did you choose this program?

GHA is tailor-fit for a hospital such as Bumrungrad. GHA takes into consideration the entire patient journey, especially for the medical traveler–the aspects that also have to include pre-hospital travel and preparation as well as the specifics needed for patients who have to return home with completed care and follow up.

Other certifications, such as JCI, are excellent for clinical quality, but don’t involve the other important aspects of the traveling patient.

6. In what ways has GHA accreditation impacted your international program?

The GHA process… what I believe should be called more accurately, The GHA Experience–was an exercise in practical, pragmatic, necessary quality improvement. In every great existing system that we had already established as a world international medical care leader, we were able to find the details that finely tuned the processes and found important gaps that could be improved.

I believe that patients want and respect efficiency in processes. This greatly allowed us to improve our efficiency with customer response and confidence when leaving home for what is often a very stressful medical issue.

7. What words of advice would you tell a patient contemplating medical travel for the first time?

Do your homework! There are hundreds of choices for international medical care around the world now. Some are excellent. Some make claims of quality and service that may not meet the expectations and needs, especially for the patient who is very ill. Look for patient testimonials.

Evaluate the attention and professionalism of the responses to pre-travel questions and plans. Look for accreditation and certification and transparency of pricing. Most importantly if the need for care is not urgent, take the time to learn what you need to know before you travel.

Dr. Nizar Zein, Chairman Global Patient Services, Cleveland Clinic

Founded nearly a century ago, Cleveland Clinic has always lived at the leading edge of innovation and has been serving medical travel patients since its first day of operation. It has pioneered many medical breakthroughs, including coronary artery bypass surgery and the first face transplant in the United States.

No less important, Cleveland Clinic has also led the way in putting patients first to improve patient satisfaction. Cleveland Clinic was the first major academic medical center to make patient experience a strategic goal, appoint a Chief Experience Officer, and one of the first to establish an Office of Patient Experience.

1. How would you describe Cleveland Clinic’s value proposition as it relates to international patients? Why do they choose Cleveland Clinic for their medical care?

Cleveland Clinic is a tertiary care center that is nearly 100 years old and is ranked as the second-best overall medical center in the United States. It has also maintained the ranking of the best center for the care of patients with heart diseases and the best center for the care of patients with urological disorders.

Our value proposition goes far beyond clinical outcomes and is derived from the mission of the Cleveland Clinic, ‘To better care for the sick, investigation into their problems and further education of those who serve.’

This mission has been translated into reality through a strategic agenda centered on the patient. To continuously improve quality, safety and patient experience are direct outcomes of our strategic agenda.

2. What strategies or processes have you incorporated to ensure patients have an optimal patient experience before, during and after being treated at your facility?

Cleveland Clinic has been fully committed to the principle of improving patient experience for the past several years. As medical care in the US evolved from evidence-based to a patient-centered care model, Cleveland Clinic appointed the first ‘Chief Experience Officer’ and led the country in this field. The office of Patient Experience at the Cleveland Clinic created the patient experience map where all ‘touch points’ were identified.

Training of all staff (physicians, nurses, and all other personnel) in communication, empathy and cultural awareness was completed. A number of changes in medical gowns, visitation hours, parking, food services, etc. complemented the training.

Ultimately, Cleveland Clinic established a more appealing environment for the patient and the caregiver alike. In such an environment, emotional connection and shared commitment to positive outcomes between the sick and those providing medical care can easily be established.

3. What, in your opinion, are two or three of the biggest challenges facing international patients seeking care in another region or country? How do you address those challenges?

While medical knowledge and healthcare delivery changed over the years, caring for international patients is perhaps as old as medicine itself. Restoring health is the central focus of medical care for all patients, although some elements necessary to achieve it are unique for foreign (international) patients and should be addressed. Empathy is by far the most critical element and is a remarkable therapeutic force.

Empathy, however, requires effective communication and shared experiences. Neither of which are present when caring for international patients. Accordingly, for medical organizations engaged in providing medical care for international patients, overcoming the language barrier and creating cultural competency among its staff are two essential parts of achieving empathy for international patients.

A second unique challenge for providing medical care to international patients is the need to address daily living necessities (housing, cell phone service, banking, religious services, Visa and other legal services, etc.). These services are inconsistently provided and are critical in allowing patients to focus on their medical issues and recovery.

4. It is well-known that Cleveland Clinic directly contracts with U.S. employers who refer their employees for state-of-the-art cardiac procedures. In practical terms, how has your focus on the patient experience impacted the success of this program?

It is clear that, while Cleveland Clinic is ranked as a top Cardiac hospital, several other tertiary care organizations in the United States and elsewhere can achieve similarly excellent clinical outcomes. However, and rightly so, assessment of healthcare facilities incorporates other fundamentals such as patient experience, safety and quality of services provided.

Our organization has been a pioneer in addressing patients’ needs beyond the medical problem for which the patient is being treated, leading to an overall outcome that is above and beyond the immediate clinical outcome alone.

5. You were recently accredited by Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA). Why did you choose this program?

Our choice was based on the desire to achieve the highest quality service in the safest environment for international patients coming to our facilities throughout the Cleveland Clinic. To uniquely achieve certification of our international center is a strong indication of our commitment to meet the needs of these patients.

We chose Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) as it conducts a deep review of the entire medical travel care continuum. Additionally, GHA helps identify areas of opportunity to enhance the patient experience and improve operational performance.

When gaps are identified, GHA provides possible solutions to bridge these gaps. Having a reputable, independent and experienced external organization assesses our processes and procedures has already proven valuable to our program.

6. In what ways has GHA accreditation impacted your international program?

The immediate impact was that the GHA accreditation initiative forced our team to carefully examine our processes and procedures to better understand gaps that needed to be bridged. Additionally, GHA was instrumental in suggesting changes to improve our patient experience.

Being an accredited program by GHA provides us with a greater level of credibility and a higher level of confidence as we navigate through healthcare markets globally.

7. What words of advice would you tell a patient contemplating medical travel for the first time?

My most sincere advice for patients is that they go through a vetting process of the medical facility to which they are planning to visit. The vetting process could be done by professional organizations or through former patients. It should be a facility with core values centered on quality, safety and a good patient experience.

It should also have a dedicated department for the treatment of international patients where unique needs and services (housing, language interpreting, etc.) are provided in a seamless fashion.

Jadranka Primorac, Chief Operating Officer, St. Catherine Specialty Hospital

Located in Zagreb, Croatia, St. Catherine Specialty Hospital is a renowned internationally for advanced diagnostics, orthopedic procedures, spine surgery, pain management, and sport medicine, applying the concept of integral healthcare, innovative diagnostics methods and, most recently, personalized treatment strategies.

Orthopedic surgeons at St. Catherine specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles and nerves. The hospital has pioneered a number of innovative medical treatments and is a teaching base for several of Croatia’s leading universities as well as a center of research for bio-medicine.

1. How would you describe St. Catherine Specialty Hospital’s value proposition as it relates to international patients? Why do patients choose your organization for their medical care?

St. Catherine Hospital is a European center of excellence for advanced diagnostics, orthopedic procedures and spine surgery, pain management, sport medicine as well as in the implementation of innovative diagnostics methods and personalized treatment strategies. The concept of integral healthcare is what underlines the uniqueness of St. Catherine Specialty Hospital.

Orthopedic surgeons at St. Catherine’s specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles and nerves. By collaborating with scientists all around the world our surgeons develop new solutions for patients that improve healing, speed up rehabilitation and improve outcomes.

For instance, St. Catherine Hospital was among few European institutions that started with applications of adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) in clinical practice, more precisely, to use MSC for cartilage repair. St. Catherine’s orthopedic team, made a new medical alternative: the meniscal transplant, an hour-long, outpatient, arthroscopic procedure that uses donor tissue to replace damaged meniscus, which can dramatically slow the onset of arthritis.

Furthermore, we are in the process of the integration of pharmacogenetics testing into the clinical work. At the best of our knowledge, we are the hospital with the lowest percentage of infections (0.6%), in comparison with any other hospital in South Eastern Europe. In addition, we are focused on “Patient-Centered Medicine,” tailored to the patient’s needs.

In order to achieve that goal, we carefully work on care processes, on improving the service process as well as on repositioning care programs aimed at local, regional and international patients. We constantly strive to improve our customer service as well as to invest in education, innovation, and new technology.

2. What strategies or processes have you incorporated to ensure patients have an optimal patient experience before or after being treated at your facility?

We strive to provide the best possible service in a whole continuum, from the first contact until the patient’s discharge and follow-up period to create a patient experience aligned with our promise.

Besides the concept of integral healthcare – where experts in their field take a multidisciplinary approach using the newest equipment and the latest treatment options, which is our main strategy, we are imperatively focused on “Patient-Centered Medicine.”

It means that each patient is always well informed, having as much information to make a choice, feel safe, confident and being treated with respect and dignity.

3. What, in your opinion, are two or three of the biggest challenges facing international patients seeking care in another region or country? How do you address those challenges?

There is no simple answer to this question because the challenges depend on the individual, although patient safety presumably is a priority. A second concern probably relates to clinical excellence and quality control of the credentials of the physicians and the medical staff.

Our concept overcomes those challenges, first of all by providing surgeons who are recognized nationally and internationally for their surgical technical excellence and highly educated medical staff that applies advanced diagnostics using the newest equipment and the latest treatment options.

Our collaborative research projects and close collaboration with numerous clinics, including Unfallkrankenhaus Berlin (Germany), Regiomed-Kliniken (Germany), Diagnostikum Graz (Austria), Carolina’s Pain Institute (USA), Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital, Mahidol University (Thailand) are confirmations of persistent work that further provides patient confidence.

4. What role do you see technology playing in the future of medical travel? Are there any particular examples that stand out?

Technology and the medical field are very important partners. Technology allows for faster and accurate diagnostics, opens the door for remote treatments such as telehealth, and provides advanced methods for medical research. Almost everybody knows that the DaVinci robotic surgery has contributed to the medical field in a way that was almost a fantasy only a few years ago.

We all talk about and promote telemedicine, and the amount of apps people use today is growing by leaps and bounds. But even simple technological instruments can make the life of the patient much easier, and shorten the recovery period significantly.

Technology is helping us to quickly approach solutions that were unattainable only a few years ago, and achieve many promising discoveries in medicine and patient treatment.

5. You were recently accredited by Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA). Why did you choose this program?

GHA is accreditation with excellence and it is a great privilege to become a member of its community. With its systematic and objective evaluation process, GHA helps the organization to set the best possible quality of care, credibility of overall quality improvement, strengthens the processes related to safety, supports business growth and helps organizations to implement cultural sensitivity in its continuum.

Given the above, we have chosen the GHA program as a tool that would help us achieve supreme quality in providing medical travel services and best outcomes for patients.

6. In what ways has the GHA accreditation impacted your international program?

First of all GHA accreditation enabled us to track our performance and services on a daily basis by which we are significantly improving our work. Such a prestigious accreditation, besides operational excellence, opened for us new opportunities in the medical travel market that will directly challenge our business strategy and growth.

Additionally, the GHA program incorporates very comprehensive processes with very specific demands related to medical travel patients, which distinguishes it from other accreditation programs. GHA’s high demands simply push you to accept the accreditation program as a challenge for new opportunities, improved processes of care and competitiveness.

7. What words of advice would you tell a patient contemplating medical travel for the first time?

Medical travelers who are thinking about taking medical trip have to be informed with the right information in order to feel confident about their decision and the institution they choose. The chosen healthcare institution should be committed to delivering seamless, safe and immediate service, which is commonly confirmed by international accreditations, expert staff, the latest in medical technology, advanced medical treatments, and no waiting lists.

The medical travel facility must be clear in representing personalized, patient-centered services, respecting cultural needs and ensuring that patient values guide all clinical processes and decisions. Patient-Centered Medicine is crucial for success and should be implemented throughout the entire continuum.

Such a comprehensive approach and uniqueness is the promise for potential clients, to feel the service and safeness even before they experience it.

What are the keys to success in medical travel?

Delivering superb healthcare quality and great outcomes should be a prerequisite for any modern hospital or clinic to open its doors. However, healthcare providers who wish to distinguish their services and create a global brand must go beyond clinical quality and focus on enhancing the patient experience across the entire care continuum both within and outside the clinical environment.

Each organization highlighted above is rigorous on clinical quality and leaders in their medical specialties. Yet, they would not have created world-class medical travel programs without a laser-focus on patient-centered care and the implementation of services, policies, and procedures customized to the specific needs of their traveling patient populations.

Furthermore, each of these hospitals has chosen to seek validation of their services and continuous process improvement through accreditation of their medical travel program. For healthcare providers who wish to follow in their steps, these are the keys to a successful and sustainable medical travel program.

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