Medical tourism offers travel firms untapped growth

Medical TourismA dentist’s office may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect holiday destination. But a growing number of Europeans are travelling abroad for medical treatment to save money, or maybe to combine a visit to the doctor with some sightseeing, creating a fast-growing market that is still largely untapped by traditional tour operators.

“It was simply cheaper for me to go to a dentist in Hungary,” said a 42-year-old physical therapist from Berlin, who did not want to give his name.

He chose the clinic near Budapest from an Internet advertisement, enticed by hundreds of euros in savings compared with the same treatment in Germany. He was happy to find when he got there that the clinic was clean, the staff competent and the work thorough. Greater efforts by clinics to lure customers from abroad for routine procedures are creating new opportunities for tour operators looking to expand into faster-growing markets.

Helmut Wachowiak, a professor at the International University of Applied Sciences at Bad Honnef in Germany, says the global medical tourism market is worth $40 billion to $60 billion and is growing at about 20 percent per year.

“The medical tourism market is still very much passing by traditional tourism, though it is increasingly recognised as an opportunity for the travel industry,” said Wachowiak, an expert on tourism management. People travel abroad for medical treatment for various reasons: it’s cheaper, they face a long wait at home, or the treatment they want is not available in their own country.

Robert MacLaren, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Oxford, said some patients who have immigrated may prefer to return to be close to their families when they undergo surgery.

“People will want to take the opportunity to seek treatment in places where it might be cheaper and where they have relatives who might be able to look after them. I’m seeing that especially with younger people from eastern Europe,” he said.

The British-based Medical Tourist Company refers about 100 patients a year to hospitals in India for treatments including cardiac surgery, knee and hip replacement, in-vitro fertilisation and dental work.

Chief Executive Premhar Shah reports rapid growth in demand from customers in Africa, where it can be harder to find well-equipped medical facilities for complex surgeries.

Shah, a medical doctor by training, said he competes with hospitals that market directly to prospective patients as well as companies trying to expand into medical tourism.

“It’s a very competitive market because everybody wants to jump into it,” he told Reuters.

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