Italy has recently approached Medical Tourism Market, in the following interview, Keith Pollard, IMTJ’s opinion leader, explains which strategic benefits could come from this sector about National Health System, which ones for economic development, which countries have become value bearer in this business and those mistakes instead a great potential destination as Italy should never commit.
Which are the main challenges Medical Tourism sector has to face today?
“Medical tourism is still a very immature, but developing market sector. It’s a complex market that consists of a multitude of distinct market niches. The dental patient seeking low cost abroad treatment abroad… the parents of a child with cancer seeking a cure, at any cost, anywhere… a government in a developing country that is funding treatments that are not yet available in their own country… the infertile couple going abroad due to the restrictions on infertility treatment in their home country. Too many destinations and healthcare providers try to be “all things to all people”. There is little product or service differentiation. The mantra “Come to us for high quality and low cost treatment” is repeated again and again. Sadly, the sector has failed to deliver on the early, exaggerated expectations of market growth. Many have entered the market and have exited a couple of years later when they have failed to deliver a return on their investment.”
Italy is a very young market when it comes to Medical Tourism: what role do you think it can play in the scenario?
“Coming late to a market is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that you can learn from the mistakes that others have made. And there are plenty of lessons to be learned. There are few destinations that have capitalised on the medical tourism opportunity. The scenario goes something like this. A government body, a healthcare or tourism organisation decides that there’s an opportunity to generate income by attracting international patients. Lots of meetings take place. Lots of discussion. Some form of medical tourism cluster or group is established. The new entity doesn’t have sufficient staff or funding to make things happen. Perhaps, it gets some funding from the government or from local providers. The money gets spent on attending and exhibiting at medical tourism conferences and events. Soon the initial budget is exhausted. There’s no clearly defined strategy in terms of which markets and treatment areas to target. The marketing investment required to penetrate those target markets is minimal or is spent in the wrong way. The patients fail to appear. The initiative dies a death… the medical tourism cluster survives in name only. That’s the reality of many medical tourism initiatives.”
Which are Italy’s strong and weak assets?
“That depends on which market niches Italy chooses to target. The strengths and weaknesses must always be considered in relation to your competitors and the specific needs of the target audience. The first place to look is those countries that already have an affinity with your country. Countries which have a similar culture, language and perhaps an Italian Diaspora. Countries which provide the biggest “traditional” tourism flows into your country. When it comes to treatment areas, it’s important to focus on what your hospitals and clinics are really, really good at, not just average – those hospitals and clinics you have that have built a truly international reputation.”
Cross Border mobility in the EU with coverage for cross border care costs is still far from being a reality. Can it be a competitive advantage to stimulate Medical Tourism in Europe?
“So far, the impact of the EU Directive on Cross Border Care has been minimal. Most EU citizens are unaware that they have the right to opt for treatment in another EU country funded by their own healthcare system. The systems and processes are all in place to facilitate safe and effective cross border healthcare. But, if there isn’t the awareness or the fundamental interest in leaving the familiarity of your domestic healthcare system for treatment elsewhere, then it’s going to be very slow to develop.”
Could Medical Tourism provide an opportunity for growth (technological, professional, qualitative) for a National Health System or will it remain an opportunity confined to some clinics?
“In the UK, we talk about international patients rather than medical tourism. The UK’s NHS teaching hospitals in London generate significant income by treating international patients from across the globe. For example, the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, the UK’s leading NHS hospital for children, generates around 60 million euros of revenue each year from treating children from many different countries. The hospital’s Harris International Patient Centre, is a great example of how a public sector hospital, supported by world leading clinicians and ground breaking research, can generate revenue through promoting its expertise worldwide.”