Rebranding Dubai - The healthy way

What steps does Dubai need to take to make sure it is the destination of choice for medical tourists?
Rebranding Dubai - The healthy way
By Ayesha Khanna and Jaime Fitzgerald
Fri 02 Oct 2009 04:00 AM

What steps does Dubai need to take to make sure it is the destination of choice for medical tourists? Ayesha Khanna and Jaime Fitzgerald provide five strategies for Dubai to make itself the leader in this industry.

The global recession has negatively impacted transshipping, tourism and real estate in Dubai, three of its primary economic sectors. To counter skepticism about its future, Dubai has been touting the Dubai Health Care City (DHCC) whose Phase I is going to be completed in 2010 as the world’s new center of medical tourism and an emerging pillar of the Emirates’ economy. Indeed, given that medical tourism is a multi-billion dollar booming industry with 2-3 million patients seeking treatment in foreign countries annually, Dubai seems to be in the right place at the right time. But medical tourism is now an increasingly competitive marketplace, with Singapore, Thailand and India leading the way among a group of over 35 countries that cater to international patients. Several of these competitors are in the Middle East region itself with both Jordan and Lebanon being top contenders, and Abu Dhabi close behind Dubai in developing its healthcare offerings.

So what can Dubai do to secure top ranking in the industry and attract a significant percentage of the millions of medical tourists swarming the globe today? The primary attraction for medical tourists is financial savings (if they are coming from the West) and quality of care (especially if they herald from developing countries). For example, a heart bypass that costs $130,000 in the US costs only $10,000 in India. Similar cost structures exist in Thailand and Singapore as well, two other well-known providers in the region, and thus Dubai does not offer a cost advantage versus these areas. Dubai has partnered with Harvard Medical International (HMI) to provide a renowned and trusted name as its strategic collaborator. However, HMI has, in fact, developed over 50 programs in more than 30 countries across five continents and most medical tourism hubs have alliances with similarly well-respected institutions, thus diluting the uniqueness of this partnership in Dubai. The Government of Dubai needs to employ a coherent strategy leveraging customer information and analytics in order to develop a competitive edge in this industry. Other governments such as those of Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia are already collaborating with their local health industries to improve the profile and attractiveness of their medical tourism sector. In other words, the hundreds of million dollar investments in healthcare facilities and alliances at DHCC while commendable and necessary are not enough to give Dubai an edge over its competitors, all of which are following similar paths. Only with a highly sophisticated and dynamic strategy that is both responsive to market trends and technologically innovative can Dubai become one of the top destinations for international patients, and in the process, diversify its economy and experience high growth. Five strategies ranging from understanding and targeting customers better to using state of the art information technology to strengthen and increase the longevity of customer relations will help Dubai sustain competitive advantage on an on-going basis.

Targeted Customer Marketing and Services- Identifying relevant customer segments is the key to building having a strong client base. Thousands of UAE citizens traditionally went to the US for medical treatment. However, visa barriers since September 11th meant fewer patients from the Middle East and Gulf states could pursue treatment in the US. Now they go to other medical hubs, including 90,000 UAE citizens per year just to Thailand alone. Targeting and capturing a greater share of this market should be the first priority for DHCC. A strong regional and domestic customer base also protects Dubai from recessions in other regions of the world.

Ironically, the US now suffers from out-bound medical tourism because of the bloated, inefficient and expensive healthcare system in the country that makes treatment unfeasible even for the insured. Then there are the 50 million uninsured Americans, and even those who have free healthcare like US army veterans suffer long waiting times for basic procedures. According to Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions in Washington, D.C., 600,000 Americans will travel abroad for medical treatment, looking for cheaper better medical care. This reality is not lost on Jordon, ranked #1 in medical tourism in the Middle East by the World Bank, which regularly appeals directly to the cash strapped and frustrated US population. Recently, the head of Jordan’s Private Hospitals Association, Dr. Fawzi al-Hammouri, advertised treatment packages as “less than 25 percent of what you have to pay in the U.S."

Another massive market for Dubai are patients from Canada and Britain, all of whom suffer from long waiting periods that are characteristic of publicly funded healthcare. Carefully profiling and analyzing each kind of customer, their needs, and their motivations for seeking healthcare abroad will allow Dubai to prioritize and target high value customers. This kind of customer segmentation and profitability analysis is common in multinational organizations such as Pepsi which continually calibrate their marketing and products to customer preferences and needs.

Superior Customer Experience– According to Josef Woodam, author of Patients Without Borders, patients highly value the customer experience in terms of the attention they receive, the quality of treatment, and the attractiveness of local tourism. Dubai is already a popular tourist destination and is planning to leverage its experience and services in tourism to enhance the value of the medical stay of international patients. Other countries are similarly working in the same vein. South Africa, for instance, offers luxurious resorts and safaris as part of its medical care packages (one leading provider is called appropriately Surgeons & Safari, and is run by Lorraine Melville, a Founding Member of the Medical Tourism Association of South Africa.)

But customer experience is far more than just adding tourist attractions to patient treatment. When Joseph Pine and James Gilmore wrote about customer experience in their pioneering article “Welcome to the Experience Economy” in Harvard Business Review in 1998, they wrote about how “an experience occurs when a company uses services as the stage--and goods as props--for engaging individuals in a way that creates a memorable event.” Customers respond to an experience which is not only functionally reliable but also emotionally rewarding. Companies that have thought deeply about customer experience management such as Starwood Hotels & Resorts have found high returns on the effort. Thus, Dubai must pay attention to the end to end experience of a patient’s interaction with the country’s medical process if it is to successfully differentiate itself from other market players that are less adept at seamlessly managing customer experience.

Customer experience management requires understanding what customers value, and then using that information to improve, automate and integrate business processes. Creating a positive customer experience is a continuous evolution based on careful management and monitoring of feedback provided by customers, which is then incorporated into key interactions with the customer. Disease Management for the Aged and Chronically Ill– Most patients undertake medical tourism for one-off or treatments, yet the majority of the world’s burgeoning aging population suffers from chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and arthritis. Medical tourism hubs usually don’t cater to the aged or chronically ill, yet these two groups will soon comprise the majority of patients seeking medical care. The world’s population, especially the developed world, is aging at a very high rate. In fact, the 50+ age-group is the fastest growing segment of the world population. Take just a few examples that underscore this fact: 50% of the European Union’s population will be over 65 years of age within a few years; every seven seconds, an American turns 50; between 2000 and 2050, the number of elderly men and women in Asia will more than triple, with Japan having the most rapidly aging population in the world; and by 2030, the number or retirees in Italy will surpass the number of active workers.

Dubai can be one of the pioneers of innovative long term disease management , which necessarily involves both in- and out-patient care, in the medical tourism marketplace. It can achieve provision of long-term attentive care through virtual support, well managed information systems that track patient cases and even satellite workers that provide periodic home visits. Companies such as Canada’s New IT Healthcare provide tools for intelligent distance patient monitoring and need to be integrated with the business processes of the medical facilities in DHCC to provide a seamless e-health environment for each patient. Since DHCC is starting anew, it does not suffer from the paralyzing legacy systems and paper based processes for healthcare facilities in most countries. It has already made the commitment to electronic medical and health records as a fundamental pillar of patient service, and this should in turn greatly facilitate providing long-term care for aged and chronically ill patients.

Innovative Health Delivery Models– Dubai should attempt to build a healthcare city of the future, creating quality care using telemedicine and the latest technological devices to track and manage patient health. For example, the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering (IESE) in Germany, which undertakes innovative software design, is developing intelligent homes which will help with the care of the elderly. The core of the smart home consists of several hidden devices with sensors which document, track and monitor the activities of the patient. The data collected, such as how often the person goes to the bathroom, can be used by doctors to analyze the patient’s health and contact the patient should the behavior imply illness. Telemedicine, or virtual consulting, where the doctor communicates with the patient over email, video or phone, will increasingly become prevalent. Medical tourism should not be limited to medical travel; in fact, its definition should expand from medical treatment that is outside one’s country of origin to one that is independent of geography.

Early adoption of this kind of integrated medical solution consisting of both virtual assessment and follow-up care will definitely put Dubai ahead of the game. Dubai will have to leverage specialists in knowledge and information management and partner with the makers of smart devices to create the capabilities to execute this kind of approach.

Specialization and Leadership in Research and Innovation– Specialization tends to emerge naturally in some countries, but Dubai can make conscious choices since it is planning its healthcare economy. Brazil, for example, is known for plastic surgery while South Africa is known for dentistry and India for cardiology and fertility treatments. Countries in the Middle East are also advertising their specialization. The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism recently hosted the launch of Image Concept, a Dubai based company which specializes in connecting Gulf patients interested in cosmetic surgery to surgeons in Lebanon. The Ministry’s Director General, Mrs. Nadra Sardouk, commented, “Cosmetic Tourism is a widely recognized and appreciated concept and we are very hopeful that this initiative will contribute to our economy and benefit tourism and medical sectors.” Dubai will also need to invest in particular health services to differentiate the country from competitors.

In addition, it is important for Dubai to establish thought leadership in medical research and innovation. Of all the medical tourism hubs, Singapore has been the most successful in this regard, building a reputation in bio-technology, stem cell research and cancer treatment.

In conclusion, Dubai must think of itself as a corporation and utilize information technology and analytics to provide customized positive experiences to target patient populations. Only this approach will help Dubai create and sustain a competitive edge in the medical tourism marketplace.

Ayesha Khanna is Partner and Jaime Fitzgerald is Managing Partner of Fitzgerald Analytics, a management consulting firm which specializes in information management and analytics. Ayesha Khanna is also Director of Hybrid Realities, a strategic consulting firm focusing on the impact of technological innovation on social and economic trends.

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