The number of people traveling outside their home countries to receive medical and dental care is growing and the outlook for continued growth is positive especially from the United States. The economic downturn has left perhaps as many as 65 million Americans uninsured. While some will forego treatment, millions more will explore other health care options like medical tourism. For the hotel industry, this trend represents opportunities and challenges.
Attracting medical tourists to fill vacant hotel rooms is tempting. Many medical tourists, particularly those coming for dental rather than medical procedures, may have modest needs that forward thinking management and well-trained hotel staff can easily deliver. By ramping up customer service and creating unique services for medical tourists, hotels can expand their potential pool of guests while differentiating themselves from competitors.
Before jumping onto the medical tourism train, evaluate whether your hotel is in a location that is attractive to medical tourists and whether your facility and staff can deliver the extra services that should be provided to medical tourists. For example, is your hotel strategically located near a hospital or other health care providers? If so, exploring medical tourism options may be a smart move. If you are in a remote or difficult to reach location, then medical tourism guests may not be right for you. Is your hotel too small to provide the extra services for medical tourism guests? Again, perhaps medical tourism is not the right option for you.
For many hotels, attracting medical tourism guests is an exciting opportunity. What challenges should hotel management consider when deciding to serve medical tourism guests?
First, what level acuity guest would you and your staff be comfortable serving? Some medical tourists are indistinguishable from other guests. They may visit a local dentist, have their teeth cleaned, a tooth filled, and then be ready to go zip lining the next day. Their discomfort is modest and very short lived so the extra demands on staff is slight. You have undoubtedly had this type of guest stay at your hotel and not even realized it. Other medical tourism guests are much more visibly obvious such as people who have had plastic surgery or orthopedic surgery. Their needs are far greater than your typical guests. Can you meet their needs? Here are some issues to consider to help you make that decision.
The product you are selling to medical tourism guests is different from those sold to visitors for pleasure or business. You are selling all the same services to your typical guest plus the added sense of a safe, clean, and nurturing environment that anticipates needs. Your staff must be empathetic to the physical and emotional discomfort of medical tourism guests as well as the needs of the family member or friend who may accompany the medical tourist. Can you create this type of environment?
Assess the physical environment of your hotel and the types of modifications that may be necessary to accommodate people who are weak, dizzy, or mobility impaired. Are there physical barriers to entering the hotel and accessing the room, restaurant, pool or other areas? Do you have accessible rooms with wide doorways for wheelchairs or other assistive devices? Can the person use the shower without having to climb over a threshold or into a tub? Will the guests need any special type of furniture such as a hospital bed? Run an experiment and have someone in a wheelchair maneuver around your hotel and see what they encounter. Assess the obstacles and the cost of changing them. The investment may justify the cost.
Medical tourism guests require an added level of customer care to be delivered by every person on staff from the General Manager to concierge to housekeeping. These guests represent the essence of customer service - anticipating and providing top quality service. Staff must be trained to recognize and respond to the needs of medical tourists. For example, privacy and discretion may be of utmost importance to the medical tourism guest who has had cosmetic surgery. The guest may look battered and bruised so staff should be sensitized to how the guest may look so as not to react with horror or surprise. Respecting the guest's privacy by providing a discreet entrance and registration process can make the medical tourist feel reassured from the moment he or she enters your hotel.
Staff or ancillary personnel should be prepared to communicate with the guest in his or her language and that includes signage in the hotel room as well as guest information such as menus or how to operate the television. Preparedness for medical emergencies is a must for staff, many of whom should be trained in first aid or CPR. Protocols for handling common medical emergencies such as fainting or falling must be designed and implemented so that staff knows what to do when any guest falls ill.
Procedures must be in place for handling and disposing of medical waste such as disposable injectibles, used bandages, and blood stained sheets and towels. It may be necessary to contract with outside services to properly and responsibly dispose of these items to keep your guests and staff safe.
Relationships with medical professionals and suppliers will be key to serving medical tourists. Having a doctor and nurse on call 24/7 is essential to any successful medical tourism hotel. In addition to an on-call doctor and nurse, medical tourism guests may require or request nursing or physical therapy services while a guest at your hotel. Knowing a reliable employment agency that provides temporary medical personnel will ensure the comfort and care of your guests. Assisting guests to have pharmacy prescriptions filled means that you should provide this service as well as have a relationship with at least one pharmacy that can deliver to your hotel 24/7. Other supplies such as hospital beds or assistive devices like walkers and canes should be available through your business relationship network.
These and other issues must be carefully considered and a plan in place if your hotel plans to market itself as medical tourist "friendly". Remember that medical tourists are entrusting their health and recovery to you and your staff. If you offer services designed for the medical tourist and do not deliver on your promise, you will harm the reputation of your hotel and demoralize your staff. On the other hand, delivering superior customer service with a well trained staff and innovative programs can energize your work force and bring more customers to your hotel. Medical tourism offers an exciting opportunity for the hotel sector especially those who plan to meet the challenges.
About the authors
Irving L. Stackpole is President and Elizabeth Ziemba is a Senior Associate of Stackpole & Associates, a marketing, training, and research consulting business. Contact Us for more information about how Stackpole & Associates can help your hotel meet the needs of medical tourism guests and bring more business to you.
This article originally appeared in the January-February 2010 magazine of the Camara Costarricense de Hoteles. PDF of published article.
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