In the past decade, an emerging trend in global tourism has been ‘Medical Tourism’. This new phenomenon brings patients from the more developed countries, where treatment costs have skyrocketed to Asian countries, which provide low-cost medical treatment alongside being popular tourist destinations.

The concept seems fairly simple and ordinary, combining medical treatment and a holiday overseas, but the economics and sheer magnitude of growth in this trend has made Medical Tourism an important new industry in Asia.

One of the key growth drivers in medical tourism is the escalating demand for healthcare in the more developed countries predominantly in North America, Europe and some parts of Asia. This increase in demand has resulted in extremely long queues even for simple medical procedures. Along with the spike in demand, the costs for medical treatment and procedures have also skyrocketed.

Because of this, patients in need of some form of medical or aesthetics treatment usually a costly surgical procedure back home would fly to countries like the Philippines, Singapore or Thailand for the same treatment, where the cost of an offshore medical procedure can be significantly lower than that of a similar treatment in the United States or Europe.

Uncompromised quality for a fraction of the cost
Worries that lower costs in healthcare in Asian countries translate to a compromise in quality of treatment, facilities and services, are also unfounded. Many of the modern hospitals in these lower-cost countries that are designed to serve the affluent, international clientele, are often newer and have much better technology and equipment than hospitals in the more developed nations. They are typically staffed by Western doctors and surgeons trained in Western medicine; and they provide equal or greater quality surgical care than hospitals in the United States or Europe.

While some patients are seeking significantly lower prices and relatively shorter waiting times by having their medical treatments done abroad, others choose to go abroad for treatments that are not yet available or widely practiced in their homeland. There are also individuals who head overseas for the personalized customer service that the high-end private hospitals deliver in order to attract an international clientele.

Destination Asia
As a result, the enormous cost savings, shorter waiting time, high quality of healthcare and the opportunity to take a holiday in a tropical paradise with some of the money saved, has made Asia an attractive destination for medical tourists.

In fact, an estimated 150,000 North Americans and Europeans currently seek medical treatment overseas each year and their preferred destinations include India, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. Abacas International, a leading travel facilitator, reports that medical tourism to Asia could generate up to $4.4 billion by 2012.

Key challenges for healthcare players in the region
In this competitive high-growth landscape, healthcare players constantly face several key challenges in addition to the obvious need to provide reliable, world-class treatment and cutting-edge medical facilities.

Customer demands
The most salient challenge that the hospitals, vying for a piece of the medical tourism pie, will face is in satisfying customer demands and expectations. Consumers today, all across the world and in every industry, have increasingly high expectations of service industries. The healthcare industry is certainly no exception, especially since healthcare is a fundamentally more important need than that of most other services.

“The top medical organizations in Asia are already turning to technology to give them an upper edge in the bid to win the hearts of international patients.”

The ever-increasing expectations that patrons will have of top-tier hospitals include more efficient appointment scheduling, increased responsiveness by physicians, nurses and other hospital support staff, access to personal medical information, online channels and services and other patient management tools. With customer expectations and demands set to go nowhere but up, hospitals will need to continually innovate to keep their customers satisfied with the quality of service.

Competition from other hospitals
The other challenge is that of direct competition, both within the region as other Asian healthcare players (backed by government initiatives) make their bid for the medical tourism pie and globally, as U.S. and European hospitals that have ceded market share attempt to re-capture some of it.

Increasing operational cost
Cost reduction is a third but important challenge for industry players. While delivering high-quality healthcare may be the key priority for healthcare providers, finding ways to reduce costs further has become the number one imperative.

The key lies in finding ways to streamline processes, eliminate inefficiency, increase productivity, and improve decision-making.

In the early years of Asia’s rise as a destination for medical tourism, the costs involved in running a healthcare business would have been lower than they are today. But with the growth of the industry in Asia, the gap in the cost of human capital is narrowing. As a result, the cost of operations due to the rising cost of skilled labour, supplies and other overheads is rapidly increasing. This, along with a downward pressure on the treatment fees, makes it more difficult for hospitals to go on providing the same level of service at the same cost.

The IT Advantage
To exploit the growth in medical tourism, deal with the increasing cost of providing medical services and to cope with the increasingly complex demands of more sophisticated customers in Asia and from all over the world, hospitals in the region need to use every advantage to get ahead. Spotting cutting-edge medical facilities and renowned doctors will not be sufficient.

As with the hospitality industry so with the medical industry, Information Technology (IT) plays a crucial role in establishing a competitive advantage for hospitals looking to compete for the medical tourism dollar.

The top medical organizations in Asia are already turning to technology to give them an upper edge in the bid to win the hearts of international patients.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools as an enabler
These hospitals have been extremely successful in attracting more international patients for an endless range of treatments, partly due to the cutting-edge medical expertise and equipment, but more so because of the customer service they provide. The hospitals are built like five-star hotels, and they have deployed customer relationship management technology to manage their growing list of international patients. Their ability to provide first-class customer service in addition to the best quality in medical treatment is what differentiates them from the rest of the competition. The service they provide, and the follow up all contribute to a growing number of patients returning for new treatments and follow up appointments. And with this technological edge to their approach to customer relationship management, the hospitals can maintain its lead in the premium healthcare range without resorting to a price-based strategy.

Belo Medical Group, The Philippines
Belo Medical Group, the largest and most popular cosmetic surgery center in the Philippines is expanding at a very rapid pace to cope with demands from patients coming from all over the world. The Group currently operates six branches, all of which serve an increasing number of patients every day. In order to provide a seamless experience across all branches, Belo uses Microsoft Dynamics GP and Microsoft Dynamics CRM to integrate patient records. This ensures that clients can walk into any branch after the initial visit without having to provide personal medical details all over again, and without having to wait for their medical records to be physically transferred from another branch. This not only enables Belo to provide superior customer service to its patients, but also manage its customer records in a more cost-efficient way. On top of that, the Group is also able to obtain business intelligence from all its customer records to better refine its marketing efforts.

Belo Medical Group has established itself as a premier destination for medical tourism in Asia; and it is clear that first-class customer experience starting even before patients check into the hospital and ending only after surgery and checking-out is what differentiates this top-tier hospital from their competitors.

A central component to their customer experience strategy is in their deployment of Microsoft Dynamics CRM, enabling them to powerfully manage the large database of customers at a low cost. Microsoft Dynamics CRM was recognized in early 2007 by Forrester Research as a leader among customer record-centric products.

The Forrester Wave Vendor Summary report published in the second quarter of this year (2007) credited Microsoft Dynamics for its comprehensive customer service capabilities, as well as its architecture, integration, usability, and business strategy. The report further claims that “the product shines in its ability to support agents through phone agent, blended agent, and agent collaboration tools all of which sit on top of a solid workflow engine”.

The importance of CRM solutions in healthcare
It is clear that increased adoption in software such as CRM solutions will increase the overall quality of service rendered by hospitals and consequently, have a positive impact on the healthcare industry. But the inherent benefits extend beyond that. In an industry where human capital is a vital resource, a well-run hospital IT infrastructure can have a huge impact on cost control and patient care, as well as in increasing employee productivity and overall competitiveness.

Healthcare providers in this region, who want to step up onto the global stage as a prime destination for medical tourism, will have to find intelligent ways to harness the power of IT tools such as CRM to better manage the vital relationships with patients.

These tools can also help the hospital optimize their operations by reducing administrative and operational costs, and improve access to patient and organizational information. And with automated information management systems, both healthcare staff and hospital management can easily access patient information necessary for clinical decisions and access the financial data required to drive business decisions.

Together, these tools enable physicians, nurses, and administrators to work together as a single integrated team and establishing such an environment will also help in attracting the best in medical and healthcare talents.

As worldwide demand for quality healthcare grows each year, the opportunities in medical tourism are endless. But in an industry that is increasingly competitive, it is important for serious players to employ the best-in-class IT tools to sharpen their edge against the competition in every area; and to satisfy the ever-increasing customer demand for a first-class healthcare experience.

“In an industry where human capital is a vital resource, a well-run hospital IT infrastructure can have a huge impact on cost control and patient care, as well as in increasing employee productivity and overall competitiveness.”

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Related January 2008