Covid-19 and medical tourism: is a recovery on the cards?

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– Before the pandemic, medical tourism was a major growth area

– Dubai was a world leader among emerging market destinations

– Covid-19 travel bans and lockdowns seriously dented growth

– Increased emphasis on safety has enabled a gradual re-opening

Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, medical tourism was a significant growth industry in many emerging economies. While the pandemic represented a major setback for the segment, there are signs that it may be recovering in several markets.

The last decade saw a boom in medical tourism. By 2018 the global market was generating $58.6bn annually and in 2019 it was forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.7% – reaching more than $142.2bn by 2026.

The segment’s growth was largely spurred by increased awareness – particularly among citizens of higher-income countries – of the quality and relatively affordable health care options on offer in many emerging economies. The appeal was further enhanced by the possibility of combining medical treatment with a holiday in an attractive location.

Asia has been a popular region for medical tourism for some time. In Thailand, for example, guided by the Ministry of Public Health’s 2016-25 strategic plan entitled ‘Thailand: A Hub of Wellness and Medical Services’, stakeholders have been working to cement the country’s position as a regional leader in medical tourism.

Elsewhere in Asia, in 2017 the Indian government began offering a medical visa aimed at bringing in more foreign patients. 

Governments in other regions similarly moved to capitalise on this growing segment. In 2015, for example, Turkish Airlines announced a 50% discount on flights for people coming to Turkey for medical treatment.

The UAE likewise adapted its visa policy to facilitate medical tourism and began offering a package that covered every aspect of a trip, from the cost of treatments to leisure activities for patients and their families.

Dubai in particular has been positioning itself as a medical tourism leader in recent years. In 2016 the Dubai Healthcare City Authority (DHCA), which governs the Dubai Healthcare City free zone, signed an agreement with the Dubai Creative Clusters Authority (DCCA) to allow health care facilities licensed by the DHCA to establish themselves in the DCCA’s free zones. This considerably expanded the operational scope of providers, giving them access to a larger customer base and positioning health care as a key aspect of the emirate’s free zone offerings.

Following these developments, the UAE as a whole brought in $3.3bn from medical tourism in 2018, up from $2.2bn in 2014. Dubai alone saw a 4% increase in health tourism arrivals in 2019. Prior to the pandemic, Dubai’s Health Tourism Council aimed to welcome 500,000 medical tourists a year by 2021.

Indeed, Dubai ranked sixth out of 46 markets in the Medical Tourism Index 2020-2021, released by non-profit institute the International Healthcare Research Centre in July last year, and first in the MENA region for the second year running. Some of its neighbours were not far behind, with Abu Dhabi ninth and Oman 13th.

Meanwhile, India saw nearly 700,000 people come to the country on a medical visa in 2019, equivalent to 6.9% of foreign tourist arrivals.

Recovering from the impact of Covid-19

National lockdowns and international travel bans decimated the global tourism industry last year, and medical tourism was one of the segments most gravely affected by this.

For instance, Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok – one of Thailand’s main medical tourism health care providers – reported a 94% year-on-year drop in revenue in the second quarter of 2020.

However, while it will take some time to get back to the levels seen before the pandemic, various institutions around the world are implementing measures intended to reboot the industry in their respective countries.

As OBG anticipated in September last year, Dubai is at the forefront of this, and is currently welcoming ever-larger numbers of medical tourists.

The UAE federal government’s handling of the pandemic is a major factor behind this, with the country ranked as the most Covid-19-safe in the region in the Global Soft Power Index, released by London-based consultancy Brand Finance in December.

This demonstrates how extensive testing of both nationals and incoming visitors – as has been seen in the UAE – will be key to restoring confidence and boosting visitor numbers going forward. The UAE also boasts a world-leading vaccination programme, which has helped to secure its reputation for safety – although a spike in cases saw Dubai impose some new restrictions on hospitality venues in early February. 

Various countries have launched similar testing programmes for medical tourists, such as the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s ‘Beyond Healthcare, Trust Thailand’ programme, which requires patients to take coronavirus tests and go into quarantine after arrival at a medical institution.

In parallel to this, there has been a global uptick in Covid-19 compliance certifications. One such example is the Certificate of Compliance: COVID-19 Safe, launched last year by German healthcare accreditation provider Temos, which confirms that hospitals and clinics meet necessary standards.

Alongside such measures, telemedicine is also seeing considerable growth, with many hospitals expanding their offering of online pre-travel diagnosis and post-travel consultation. While such solutions do not capture as much value as an actual visit, they serve to maintain contact with potential clients.

Global medical tourism undoubtedly took a hit in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, as the recent positive performance of destinations such as Dubai suggests, implementing a combination of solutions can help to restore the confidence of medical travellers, which will be the first step on the road to recovery.

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