Pent-up demand – a medical tourism opportunity?

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The pandemic has clearly had a major impact on health services around the world, diverting resources to treating patients with COVID-19 and creating long-term challenges for governments as they try to return to the normal. Will this lead to a boom in demand for care abroad?

As the pandemic subsides and hospitals begin to resume treatment of non-COVID patients, patients face major challenges in accessing the healthcare they need or treatment that has been delayed by the pandemic. Several factors explain this pent-up demand:

In many countries, COVID-19 patients have filled hospital beds and blocked the provision of elective surgeries that would normally be undertaken. The UK is a prime example of the impact of the pandemic. By the end of December 2021, the UK’s NHS waiting list had grown to 6.1million. It is estimated that this number could reach 9.2 million or even 10.7 million by spring 2024.

· Pent-up demand for treatment does not only include patients who are already waiting for treatment. Analysis published by the Health Foundation shows that if waiting lists in the UK continue to grow, the number of ‘missing’ patients who have not yet been added to the list is also increasing. There were far fewer patients referred for routine hospital care than might have been expected based on pre-pandemic numbers. These “missing patients” will add more pressure to the waiting list.

· With delays in the diagnosis of diseases such as cancer, patients present at a more advanced stage of disease progression. The most severe form of a disease such as cancer takes longer to treat, requires resource-intensive forms of treatment and is more expensive.

· Even though the pandemic pressure is easing, hospital capacity is still reduced. COVID-19 safety protocols will remain in place for some time to come. The infection control measures in place in most hospitals lengthen procedures in the operating room. It is estimated that this, in effect, reduces the capacity of the theater by up to 20%.

It’s not just elective surgery that has been affected. Let’s take dentistry, as another example. Dental clinics have closed throughout the pandemic and continue to implement time-consuming COVID-19 protocols. The end result… long waits for routine dental treatments and for more complex treatments such as dental implants.

These factors are not unique to the UK. In many countries, patients face delays in accessing treatment within their national health systems. In the United States, a McKinsey survey of healthcare system leaders and hospital executives reports that they may struggle to fill this backlog given the availability of manpower, protocols for improved sanitation and reserved capacity for inpatients. An analysis of cataract surgery volumes estimated that the United States could face a backlog of 1.1 million to 1.6 million cataract procedures in 2022.

An opportunity for a medical trip?

If patients cannot access the surgery or treatment they need in their own country, under their public health care system or publicly funded health insurance, will that encourage them to pay for the treatment either in their country or in another country?

The first evidence in the UK is certainly an increase in demand for ‘self-paid’ surgery in the country’s private hospitals. HCA Healthcare in London saw a 25% increase in self-paid hip and knee replacements; Spire Healthcare reported 47% growth in semi-annual revenue from self-paying patients. Some international clinics are also reporting renewed interest and bookings from foreign patients.

So if you’re looking to attract international patients frustrated with the time (and cost) of treatment in their own country, what should you do? Here is a quick 5-point checklist:

1. Make sure you understand what is happening in the targeted source countries. Do detailed research:

a. Identify areas of potential demand. Hips and knees? Diagnosis and treatment of cancer? Dental treatment?

b. Understand the geography of demand in the source country. Are there specific regions where demand is high? (In the UK, regional waiting lists are made public on the web.) Look for catchment areas around regional airports that serve your country directly.

2. Get your price right. Cost is a major factor in many forms of medical travel.

a. Make sure you know the price the patient can pay for treatment in their own country.

b. Consider travel and accommodation costs.

vs. Make sure your price is attractive enough to provide the patient with significant savings.

D. Offer an all-inclusive package. Don’t surprise the patient with hidden extras.

3. Get the right product.

a. Do you understand and can you meet the patient’s linguistic and cultural needs?

b. Provide you with comprehensive service and support throughout the patient journey – from initial contact, to booking and treatment, and support when the patient has returned home.

4. If there’s one thing patients want after the pandemic, it’s reassurance about quality and safety.

a. Can you provide clear evidence of your expertise? Results data? Quality data?

b. Can you convince the patient that you are operating a “COVID-safe” environment?

vs. Can you provide several testimonials from similar patients that can support your claims?

5. And finally, measure your success (or failure!)

a. Set very clear goals. b. Make sure they are SMART.

vs. And within SMART, focus on SPECIFIC. Don’t try to be “everything for all men” (or all patients). Successful medical travel is all about focusing… on what you are exceptionally good at and on a very clearly defined target group of patients – in terms of disease, country of origin and demographics.

The next 12 to 24 months represent very clear opportunities for medical travel. The pent-up demand is there. Can international hospitals and clinics “strike while the iron is hot?”

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