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Sun 24 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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The best of health

An increasing number of travellers are taking advantage of the low-cost healthcare available overseas.

Advances in technology and information access have driven an increasing number of travellers to take advantage of the low-cost, high-quality healthcare available overseas.

The concept of traveling for medical care is nothing new, but the modern concept of medical tourism - travelling to foreign countries specifically to take advantage of lower costs - has only emerged in the past 10 to 15 years.

Today, more than 250,000 patients per year visit Singapore alone - nearly half of them from the Middle East.

Usually anyone with the smallest health problem books the next flight out.

This year, approximately half a million foreign patients will travel to India for medical care, whereas in 2002, the number was only 150,000.

While health tourism is a comparatively new trend in the west, clients from this region have long been booking themselves in for a dose of sun, sea, sand and surgery.

To a degree, this trend has been driven by necessity. Until recently, high-end healthcare was not readily available regionally and the perception that for world-class healthcare you must travel, has lingered.

This view, coupled with the readiness of GCC governments to fund overseas treatment for Arab Nationals has seen the medical tourist become a year-round target for eager health-driven destinations.

To date, Middle East travel agents have not embraced the sector's potential. Big name players including Emirates Holidays and Etihad holidays admit to having no division dedicated to health tourism and companies such as Dubai-based Alpha Holidays that do offer medical packages are the exception rather than the rule.

"We're not focusing on medical tourism at this particular time," says Etihad Holidays planning and purchasing manager Julia Denny. "But that's not to say we wouldn't consider a move in the future. It's certainly a market that's going to develop, particularly in this part of the world."

One country that remains firmly at the top of the popularity charts for medical tourists from the GCC is Germany.

"Germany remains the market leader because of the quality of the medical standards it has," says Alpha Holidays product manager John Flower. "There are other destinations, but we focus on Germany, particularly Munich and Düsseldorf because the reputation they have for efficiency and high-standard treatments is second to none. I think those seeking the more cosmetic surgeries may opt for Thailand but Germany overall is still strongest."

Hoping to boost its share of the market, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is one organisation that has taken a proactive role having hosted a series of government-backed events over the past six months to woo potential agents and patients in the Middle East.

"A delegation of five hospitals led by Dr Surapong, president of the advisory board of private hospitals provided free medical consultations to visitors during the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) in May," says TAT Middle East representative Shaikh Rahmatullah."The team also exhibited at shopping malls in Abu Dhabi and Muscat and visited (both) Ministries of Health."

By reaching out to tour operators, Rahmatullah says hospitals hope to forge local links to help promote Thailand as an integrated health and vacation resort.

While Thailand's market appeal mixes high-end hospitality with healthcare, one of its biggest rivals, India, has instead positioned itself as a specialist medical venture. Promotional campaigns point to the number of medical conferences and breakthroughs India has overseen, working from the viewpoint that it's not just cost but competency that counts.

While this can be partly attributed to the challenges of competing with its more luxurious neighbours (five-star tourism is in short supply in India), the strategy is working. According to research analyst Mckinsey & Company, India's medical tourism market is forecast to be a US $22 billion business within six years.

India's popularity stems from the quality of its healthcare and its competitive pricing structure, particularly for more complex operations.

This reputation has led to the country winning the tagline ‘First-class healthcare and third-world prices'.

A large percentage of Indian doctors are US- or UK-trained and several medical groups, including India's largest, Apollo Hospital Enterprises, are internationally accredited, helping to reassure clients concerns about standards.

"We offer GCC nationals predominately high-end specialist care and the entire treatment is equal to the cost of a couple of consultations in the Middle East," says Apollo's group director of communications, Dr Karam Thakur. "Our main pitch is that the time lag behind new techniques and equipment here is minimal."

High-profile projects such as Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) show that times are changing. Now the Middle East wants its patients - and its profits - back.

"We want Dubai to become a medical hub like it has become a hot-spot for tourism," says DHCC CEO Dr Muhadditha Al Hashimi. "Usually anyone with the smallest health problem gets the next flight out."

PR firms tasked with publicising the Middle East as a healthcare hub face an embarrassing dilemma; namely, how to market the region as a world leader when its own inhabitants are prepared to fly thousands of miles to receive the same service elsewhere.

A report by the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ADCCI) optimistically maintains the United Arab Emirates will pocket approximately AED 7 billion (US $1.9 billion) annually in medical tourism profits by 2010.

The projected growth rate, an enviable 15% per year, seems unfeasible, but the current scale of investment in the country's healthcare system shows they are determined to make rapid in-roads.

But industry analysts are questioning whether ADCCI's sums add up, as healthcare providers on the Subcontinent and in South East Asia continue to report growing numbers of patients from the Middle East.

If patients are beginning to choose healthcare closer to home, it has yet to register on their radar.

The UAE government may be investing in healthcare in the hope of boosting revenue from medical tourism, but continues to spend more than $2 billion every year on sending nationals abroad in order to receive treatment.

Dr Steven Tucker is the medical director of The West Clinic in Singapore, which has a large base of Middle Eastern clients.

With patient numbers continuing to climb, Tucker believes lifting the standard, and reputation, of healthcare in the Middle East will not be a simple task.

"The initiatives by Sheikh Maktoum with Dubai Healthcare City and DuBiotech are all aimed at reducing the export of medical revenue out of the Middle East to North America, North Europe and South East Asia," he says.

"The question that remains unanswered is, ‘what will the Middle East initiatives bring in a period of five to 10 years?' As of today, I don't see a change in this pattern."

The combined efforts of foreign tourism boards and privates hospitals have given the industry enough exposure to ensure it is now ready to be exploited. The exceptional growth levels of what still remains a relatively niche area, in 10 years time will be a major market force. Smart agents should look to fill that niche now.

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