Medical tourism in Poland

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In this document medical tourism is understood as foreign patients that are visiting Poland with the aim to use medical treatment. It can be considered as an additional income source by means of privately paying patients, even though in some instances the costs can be covered by insurance companies in the country of origin. (This is possible, if the social security systems are sufficiently coordinated with regard to directive orders and regulations.) Generally, medical tourism means “travelling abroad with the intent to make use of medical treatment for the purpose of preserving life, enhancing the quality of life or improving one’s appearance; because of lower cost, better quality or the inaccessibility of some procedure at the place of residence (resulting from a lack of personnel, knowledge, technical equipment and procedures, or long waiting times or legal limitations) often combined with sightseeing the visited place” 1.[1].

The advantages of this kind of tourism affect not only medical clinics, but also many other service companies in the region. This is because the patients are likely to use many other services, not only medical ones. The selection and intensity depends on the health situation of the patient. Moreover, people traveling abroad with the aim of obtaining medical treatment often do not come alone, but bring along their family and friends, which guarantees an additional source of benefit for the region. For private clinics and hospitals medical tourism can be regarded as a new option of development. The problems with the national health systems are not only specific for Poland but are similar for most European countries. Demographic changes, a general rise in the cost of health care and an increasing awareness of European citizens regarding the possibilities of medical treatments cause that ever more people from all around the world are looking for profitable options to cover their medical needs. Well-functioning medical clinics are also one of the elements needed to build a “health region”, which is then also a useful tool to increase the competitiveness of the whole region.

It is difficult to estimate the size of the medical tourism market. One of the problems with collecting reliable data regarding medical tourism results from the fact that the main group of people from abroad coming to Poland to make use of medical treatment are actually Polish citizens living abroad. They pay privately for their treatment and often not even the clinics are aware that many of their patients are actually international patients. Other problems with collecting good data is due to the clinics’ and patients’ reluctance to share information 1 Białk-Wolf, A. (2010). Potencjał rozwojowy turystyki medycznej, Zeszyty Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego, Ekonomiczne Problemy Usług 591 (53), s. 655. about their own health. (especially if the medical treatment is a beauty procedure or is forbidden in the country of origin) The scope of medical tourism is very broad, which makes an exact definition and hereby also a precise estimate of its size difficult. Especially regarding one-day treatments and “medical wellness” there is much debate, whether these should be considered as medical tourism or not.

By analyzing the number of medical trips to Poland we should also take into account the above restrictions. Based on the data from the official statistics office in Poland (which collects only a part of the data covering the phenomena of medical tourism), expert interviews and an investigation of the demand of medical tourism in Poland, we are able to estimate the number of medical tourists in Poland. We know the number of foreigners coming to Poland due to health reasons (but the scope of these arrivals is more extensive than medical tourism) and the number of tourists that make use of treatments in health resorts. In 2016 this number was 48.273, which is 22% higher compared to 2015. Expert interviews and data collected by the Institute of Research and Development of Medical Tourism have depicted that the biggest polish clinics have no more than a few hundred foreign patients each year. This means that about 10.000 medical tourists come to Polish clinics to undergo operations. The biggest groups are dental tourists. This is because of a very competitive polish offer in this field and because patients must pay many dental services out-of pocket in most Western European countries. An analysis has shown that in 2016 there were about 180 dental clinics in Poland, which operate in the international market2. Based on expert interviews concerning the average number of foreign patients it can be estimated, that in 2016 75.000 dental patients came to Poland. Taking into account the similarity between dental and aesthetic clinics and based on the market analysis we can assume that we have about 22, 000 medical tourists coming for beauty treatment. In summary we estimate that in 2016 the total number of medical tourists in Poland was approximately 155,000.[2]

 

Considering that the number of nights of tourist accommodations rose at 7% in 2017 compared to 20163,[3] and due to the investigation of the preparation services for foreign patients (which has shown that ever more clinics are very well-prepared), we can estimate that in 2017 about 172, 000 medical tourists came to Poland. The increasing interest in medical tourism in Poland results from internal and external factors. Internal ones include: better preparation to serve foreign patients, an extended promotion on the international market and a 2 Białk-Wolf, A., Arent, M., Buziewicz, A.; Analiza podaży turystyki zdrowotnej w Polsce; POT, Warszawa; s. 1-60; 2016. 3 Wykorzystanie turystycznych obiektów noclegowych w 2017 roku, GUS. rise in service quality for medical tourists. An external factor is the worsening economic situation in Russia, which leads many Russians to skip higher priced markets such as Germany in favour of the cheaper Polish offer.

A requirement for developing medical tourism is the cooperation not only of separate clinics, but of many stakeholders of the region. The challenge to provide such services to foreign patients includes both offering the service in the foreign language, and taking into account cultural specifics. The main reasons for travelling abroad are lower costs of treatment (especially those that are not covered by the national insurance system), shorter waiting times, better quality or the inaccessibility of a procedure at the place of residence. Therefore the chances for success of a clinic on the market of medical tourism are correlated with an adequate offer to the needs of the international patients. Crucial factors are also innovative methods, which are not available in the country of origin or maybe not even in other places in the world.

If we take a look at the international tourism market, we can observe an increasing interest of it in many countries. For example, about 113,000 medical tourists came to Germany in 2014, but this number does not include dental treatment and treatment in health resorts. When looking at this number one should keep in mind, that the quality in Germany is high and very well developed and that many clinics have an international office, which is responsible for the process of dealing with medical tourists. Also the prices are not high compared for example to the USA. The good news for Poland is that 55% of all Germans can imagine to go abroad for medical treatment and 5% have already done so. The main motives are lower costs (53% of answers). A quarter cited shorted waiting periods as important. Another mentioned reason was the possibility to combine treatment with holiday. On the other hand one should keep in mind, that also many Poles travel abroad (mostly to the Czech Republic) for treatment of the cataract. These examples show, that we have to increase our competitiveness and our activities to grow the number of arrivals to Poland, which would cause a larger income from medical tourism.

In summary one should underline, that not the number of medical tourists is decisive, but the amount of money they spend – not only for the medical services directly, but also for other services, which are either bought by themselves or by friends and relatives that travel with them. Even harder is an estimate of the effects of medical tourism with regard to developing „health regions”, which are places that are attractive for tourists, investors and inhabitants by offering a high quality of life in many dimensions.

Anna Białk-Wolf

[1] Białk-Wolf, A. (2010). Potencjał rozwojowy turystyki medycznej, Zeszyty Naukowe Uniwersytetu Szczecińskiego, Ekonomiczne Problemy Usług 591 (53), s. 655.

[2] Białk-Wolf, A., Arent, M., Buziewicz, A.; Analiza podaży turystyki zdrowotnej w Polsce; POT, Warszawa; s. 1-60; 2016.

[3] Wykorzystanie turystycznych obiektów noclegowych w 2017 roku, GUS.

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