Often one can find the view that medical tourism refers to patients travelling for scheduled treatment to foreign countries. While this is a true statement, it covers only one of the manifestations of this phenomenon. The purpose of this article is to consider medical tourism in a broader perspective related to internationalization. Current trends in this market increasingly require an analysis that not only takes into account the flows of patients, but also of staff, knowledge and equipment.
In classical terms, medical tourism refers to the voluntary movement to a foreign country to undergo planned treatment there. Patients choose treatment abroad because of lower prices, higher quality or the unavailability of certain procedures. However, the recent challenges caused by pandemics, technological developments and political turbulence are revealing new manifestations of mobility in the healthcare market. The variety of aspects of the internationalisation of medical facilities is schematically shown in Figure 1. Figure 1: Aspects of the internationalization of medical facilities
Source: own elaboration.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has caused travel restrictions, it has also accelerated the acceptance and development of telemedicine solutions. These new technological capabilities go beyond a phone call to a doctor to areas such as remote monitoring, diagnostics or expert support for specialists located far from the operated patient. However, the ability to provide services remotely creates additional cyber security risks. Also new areas of internationalization have evolved, which go beyond the classical understanding of medical tourism and are not related to patient travel. An example of such a product are consultations related to the need for second medical opinions by patients from other countries.
A discussion about internationalization must also take into account the topic of visas. A lack of granted visas often is an obstacle for foreign patients trying to get treatment in Poland and Europe. For example, residents of the United Arab Emirates often do not want to deal with the troublesome process of obtaining a visa and so shift away from Europe and instead travel to other destinations such as Thailand or Indonesia. This phenomenon also applies to medical tourism. It is noteworthy that the Korean government will first and foremost address procedures related to the arrival of foreigners in order to meet its goal of attracting 700,000 foreign patients by 2027 (which is a 180 percent increase from about 250,000 in 2022),
The topic of visa facilitation in the form of e-visas can be expected to apply also to travelers accompanying patients on the trip. It should be highlighted that these challenges are a common theme during personal discussions with representatives of Arab organizations. Another manifestation of internationalization is also the employment of foreign doctors at Polish institutions. This is a current topic in the context of the Ukrainian influx and the recognition of their professional qualifications. It is also worth mentioning cases of the opposite situation when Polish doctors work outside our country. Through their competence they also indirectly help build the image of Poland as a medical tourism destination. Often the mobility of doctors themselves is a better method than encouraging patients to travel. Especially because of rising air travel prices and political instability, this trend may become more important.
Internationalization concerns not only the movement of patients and personnel, but also the movement of capital. Investment in foreign medical facilities is a highly visible trend. One of the many examples of this is the Schön Klinik Group (hospitals in Germany and the UK). Opening foreign subsidiaries can also be seen as a way to overcome foreign patients' problems with obtaining visas. Another activity in the field of internationalization of medical facilities, that can contribute to the influx of medical tourists, are the activities of international organizations. The European Union of Private Hospitals, which aims to represent the interests of private hospitals in Europe and represents 12 national associations in Europe, has organized the European Awards for Private Hospitals. The initiative aims to showcase what private hospitals do best and supports innovative European projects in various categories. Among others, awards were given to the MEDINCUS International Hearing and Speech Center and the Medicover Hospital. By participating in international events, healthcare providers build their image in foreign markets and send a message about the high quality of their services and international presence.
Benefits of internationalization
Attractive prices are not a sufficient factor for international success. We have many strong competitors, and so need convincing advantages regarding the presence in foreign markets in order to build a sustainable competitive advantage.
In conclusion it is worth looking at the issue of medical tourism in the broader context of internationalization. There are many tools to establish a presence in the international market for medical services. In an era of ever more offers related to internet advertising (which effects have increasingly become uncertain) , it is sometimes worth considering a non-standard appearance on the international arena. As a result the foreign patient will be only one among several elements of the overall development of the institution.
Dr Anna Białk-Wolf