Ian Youngman is the author of Medical Tourism 2008: the World-wide Business Guide. Here he shares his research with IMTJ
BY IAN YOUNGMAN
I first became aware of the medical travel industry when I started researching features on the special insurances offered. I was surprised to find there were very few hard facts available and what information did exist was inaccurate, unreliable or could not be verified. This started a trail to find out more about the business. At first it seemed easy, there were confident statements of how many visitors there were to several countries, how many Americans went abroad for treatment, which countries were the most popular and more.
I was surprised to find there were very few hard facts available and what information did exist was inaccurate, unreliable or could not be verified. This started a trail to find out more about the business. At first it seemed easy, there were confident statements of how many visitors there were to several countries, how many Americans went abroad for treatment, which countries were the most popular and more. But soon it dawned that a huge pile of information was actually a small bag of information multiplied many times over. So, having a long research and development background, I did what I used to do before computers, seek the source and produce a report that would act as a guide to what is happening in the industry worldwide.
First the good news. The medical travel business is thriving and those who work in the sector are becoming more professional.
Now for the bad news. Many companies and providers have little knowledge about how to market or promote a business. At the most basic level, some providers do not even offer information on their website in the local language of the customers they are targeting. The web is a crucial marketing tool — many potential customers carry out their initial research using it. Failure to use this channel effectively will have a big impact on the success of any business.
Some countries are major players with a high profile and sensible marketing. Then there are countries that are major players, but which have no real idea of how many medical travellers they are getting. One week minister A says there are 100,000, a week later minister B says 200,000. If you cannot get accurate figures, at least get everyone to use the same estimate.
Then there are high profile countries that do little actual business, and in contrast, low profile ones in Europe and South America quietly do a lot more than noisy competitors.
Some countries understand that they need to invest in marketing, promotion, conferences and much more. Others, even those often quoted as leading players, leave it entirely to a handful of agencies and hospitals.
The real problem with medical tourism statistics is that there is no clear definition of a medical traveller. It seems reasonable to include those travelling for medical treatment, dentistry and cosmetic surgery. Should you also include those travelling for medical check-ups, to spas and saunas and fitness resorts? Do you include, as many hospitals do in their figures on overseas patients treated, expatriates living in that country, business travellers, and travellers needing emergency medical treatment? Do you include people from the country who live abroad but return home for medical treatment?
There can be huge differences to figures depending on the basis you use, you then find that some hospitals use figures not by number of patients, but by number of patient visits, so if someone needs three trips to the hospital they get counted three times over.
Also consider why someone hopping over the border from Germany to Hungary, or from the US to Mexico, is a medical traveller; but someone who flies from Aberdeen to London, or from New York to Los Angeles, is not? If you travel hundreds of miles across America, you are not a medical traveller; but if you travel 20 miles across a European country boundary, you are.
Using figures from various countries, it is intriguing to see who the top 15 countries could be by 2012. But this is just my educated guess. I can show you the reasoning, but much might change.
In the dawn of medical travel, many small agencies were set up. Often these entrepreneurs had no business, medical or travel background. From the way they market their business, it is obvious that many have yet to grasp the first principles of marketing. Yet travel agencies, tour operators, health professionals and other businesses see the potential of medical travel, and are moving into the area, while at the same time loathing then term “medical travel agency”. Instead they want to be seen as facilitators, concierges, consultants… Nothing wrong with that, but if you are an intermediary, in law you are an agent. Not terming yourself as such does not avoid the fact that in many countries, anyone involved in any aspect of arranging travel must be licensed, registered and with appropriate qualifications and experience. Tour operators and travel agents moving into this business have no such problem, of course.
There has been a huge leap in knowledge and activity from hospitals. Many see the need for international patient centres, websites in the languages of the customers coming to them, advertising and promotion, and wide exposure. Few have got to the stage of proper marketing and targeting. You cannot sell services to Americans, Africans and European countries without understanding their vastly different needs and wants. Few see that you cannot just sell on price. As more hospitals and countries enter the market, fewer can claim to be the cheapest.
Some governments have seen the potential of medical travel and run exhibitions, seminars, national websites, marketing and advertising campaigns. Others proclaim loudly about how high up their county is in some mythical league table of medical travel destinations; but give no support, no money, and no resources. It will be those countries which organise themselves properly which will build a lasting legacy for medical travel.
It is a very fast moving business. Without publications like IMTJ, it is impossible to keep up to date. A final message to all in the business: please try to understand the huge difference between marketing to consumers, and marketing to the trade.
Medical Tourism 2008 - The World-Wide Business Guide, is a new 600-page business report by IMTJ contributor Ian Youngman.
By 2010 medical travel is expected to be a US$40-billion business, with over 780 million patients seeking care outside their principal country of residence. It is a huge worldwide business, but until now, reports and books have been aimed at patients.
This groundbreaking report investigates from a business perspective what is happening and will happen worldwide in all types of medical and health tourism.
The report comes as seven modules. The five Country modules profile 96 countries. There are separate modules for Asia, Americas, Middle East, Europe, Africa/Australasia. The Agencies and Information websites module covers over 400 sites. The Background module includes Statistics, Customers, Types of treatment, Associations, Accreditation, Intermediaries, Insurance, Problem areas and much more.
To order, visit IMTJONline.com and type “global report”.