1. Medical tourism in Europe
1.1. The current situation of medical tourism in Europe
In March 2020, Europe, one of the regions most affected by the virus, was declared the epicenter of the pandemic as the Covid-19 outbreak spread through its countries. In response, many EU governments closed their borders to the rest of the world and suspended cross-border traffic to curb the outbreak.
While these measures were moderated in most countries, they have had a devastating effect on the tourism industry and, by extension, have largely paralyzed medical tourism.
In fact, the drop of up to 78% in international travel arrivals in 2020 has been one of the most pronounced consequences of the pandemic, generating a major economic crisis among countries that depend on tourism.
On the other hand, with regard to the health sector, with the intention of reinforcing the most urgent medical care resources and increasing the response capacity of hospitals, European countries have been forced in 2020 to paralyze and/or suspend many elective treatments, such as those generated by health tourism.
Some reports have shown that more than 28 million elective surgeries have been cancelled during the most critical months of the pandemic. This, along with many suspended flights and hotel establishments closed or operating at minimum capacity, has also caused losses for European medical tourism. So the question is….
1.2. Will medical tourism survive the covid-19 pandemic?
Despite the fact that many companies have not been able to overcome this crisis, it seems that the palliative economic measures of governments to keep companies afloat may bear fruit in 2021 and beyond.
For starters, Europe created a framework of health protocols for companies affiliated with medical tourism, including hotels and transportation services. But in addition, government-approved vaccines bring us a hopeful prognosis, especially among those clinics that had already started betting on health tourism to boost their growth and open up to a foreign target audience.
Furthermore, even within this current framework a recent studyestimates Germany to grow by approximately 9.1% compound annual rate between 2020 and 2027.
1.3. Relevant statistics before Covid-19
What did the numbers say about health tourism? The overall statistics on health tourism in Europe only corroborated its growth.
More than 600 medical institutes and hospitals worldwide were accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI).
This seal of quality not only brings value to the clinic by recognizing the excellence of the establishment. Having this seal implies that the company is prepared to receive health tourism patients. The number of medical establishments that already have this recognition is a significant sign of the growing interest in this practice within the European healthcare market.
5% of EU citizens were already receiving medical treatment in other European countries. And 33% wanted to travel to another country for health treatments. (Statista)
There has been an interesting percentage of the public demanding health treatments in other countries of the European Union, and 5% already have trusted clinics abroad. That we had 33% of interested clients implies that there is still a wide range of opportunities to attract these patients within the EU.
Revenues from health tourists grew from €585 million in 2011 to €625 million in 2012. (CLEISS)
According to the Center for European and International Social Security Relations (CLEISS). Already since the beginning of the decade it has been shown the increase of patients’ expenditures on health treatments in foreign countries.
23% of European patients wanted to travel to another EU country for cheaper treatment, but 53% of Europeans wanted to travel for better medical treatment.(Statista)
One of the factors behind the growth of health tourism in Europe has been the interest in higher-quality treatments. Although the economic factor has been (and will continue to be) one of the reasons for traveling to another country (either because of prices in the local market, or the absence of services covering certain treatments), the truth is that patients in recent years have been investing more in taking care of their health. A trend that after the pandemic will continue to rise.
250,000 patients a year, from 170 countries, chose Germany for medical treatments (Bookimed)
The key to the success of the German healthcare market has been the adequate preparation for this type of activity. In the case of Spain, its healthcare system had reached the seventh position in the WHO ranking, which implies a high quality of service. However, the number of clinics prepared for medical tourism could still be improved.
The most requested treatment by health tourists is for cancer cure, which had reached 53%. (Statista)
This was the main demand in health tourism in Europe, but there has also been a demand for other health and aesthetic treatments that require the presence of more clinics prepared to offer them to foreign patients.
2. Health tourism in Spain
Spain has indisputably been an important active tourist destination at any time of the year. The country has always enamored tourists thanks to its climate, its gastronomy, its beautiful beaches and landscapes, its extensive history and its rich culture. These factors have not only attracted the classic tourist, but also patients who choose Spanish clinics for their treatments.
2.1. What was the state of health tourism in Spain?
Until the coronavirus pandemic shook the world, Spain ranked sixth in Europe and eighth worldwide as a medical tourism destination (Medical Tourism Index).
In 2014 medical tourism in Spain reached 321.9 million euros, an increase of 25% over the previous year, due to the preparation of private clinics to receive clients interested in this service.
The profits generated by foreign tourists who visited spas and thalassotherapy centers amounted to more than 1 billion euros between 2010 and 2015. In fact,Spain was among the countries with the highest annual growth prospects (6.2%) in wellness tourism turnover volume in Europe and globally.
Nationally, the fastest growing destinations were Madrid, Catalonia, the Balearic and Canary Islands, as well as the Costa del Sol. The most demanded treatments were plastic surgery and assisted reproduction, specialties followed by traumatology, ophthalmology, implantology, dermatology, cardiology and oncology. And forecasts for 2020 expect a foreign patient turnover of 1 billion euros..
However, with the Covid-19 pandemic many of these treatments have been affected, but as we have mentioned, there is still hope for growth for the European Union countries.
2.2. What reasons have generated medical tourism in Spain?
Among the reasons that have moved this segment of clients to choose Spain for their health treatments, the high quality of healthcare, access to treatments that they do not have in their country, the absence of waiting lists, competitive prices, post-surgical comfort, the good Spanish climate, consumer habits and the gastronomic and cultural offer. (Spaincares).
But undoubtedly what has placed Spain among the most important health tourism destinations has been the quality of healthcare at the national level. From the presence of the latest technology in private clinics, to the number of health professionals with extensive training and experience.
2.3. The Spanish health tourism public
Health tourism in Spain had been growing by 20% each year in private centers, and had been attended by Europeans, Russians and Arabs. This is because Spain is not only admired for its attractiveness in the eyes of tourists, but also for its health system..
The profile of the health tourist who has chosen Spain for medical treatments, according to a study IDIS of 2018, has been a foreigner coming from European, Arab and, mostly, Russian markets; although those coming from Latin America and China have also stood out.
Analyzing the European segment of foreign patients, the percentages were as follows: 63% from Germany, 19% from France, 5% from the United Kingdom, 5% from Italy, 4% from Austria, 3% from Sweden, and 1% from other countries.
3. So, is the growth of health tourism possible?
First of all, we have to think that, in the European medical tourism scenario, the perception of the concept of health has evolved. Today in its definition we include both traditional medicine guided by professionals, and the more holistic and complementary rehabilitation treatments and wellness services.
In fact, most Western European countries have long since begun to take advantage of their natural healing resources, such as thermal waters, an activity that will undoubtedly be in greater demand in the future. And it is not surprising since only in Germany, the first country in Europe with this type of tourism counted, in 2017, with more than 500 wellness hotels destined to an important volume of patients.
But, on the other hand, the governments of Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Slovenia have also been investing large sums in the development and improvement of private healthcare, which has shown us that technology is a great investment to boost health tourism for the future.
A fact that France has been able to confirm, a country that, although it was reticent about medical tourism, began to remodel up to 40 hospitals from 2015, attracting medical tourists who wanted access to different medical specialties such as affordable and high quality cosmetic surgeries, dental care and bariatric surgery. A breakthrough that has earned it the first place in the WHO ranking for shortest hospital waiting times..
In short, although the recovery of health tourism may be in the medium term, it should not be doubted. For starters, the World Travel and Tourism Council has introduced global safe travel protocols to help restart and accelerate the industry’s recovery in the wake of the coronavirus.
In addition, destinations and hospitals have begun applying for “Covid-Safe” certification. In both cases, the aim is to ensure the safety of medical tourists, who must be convinced of the suitability and advantages of taking the trip.
And as is obvious, this requires a major digital transformation. And, in order not to be left behind, all those clinics that want to reach international clients and be competitive need to boost their business through the internet..
The preparation of services for medical tourismrequires not only having the necessary equipment and professionals and protocols to meet this new demand, it also requires an efficient marketing strategy to enter to compete correctly in the foreign market..