How we think about health or medical tourism might be obstacles that limit the growth of business. The way we conceptualize “health tourism” defines the service and, in many cases restricts our approach to building a sustainable business. Our thinking is a barrier and limits our options. Outside the box, the markets for wellness, health, dental and medical tourism are bigger – much bigger!
Many people think about health tourism exclusively as an individual traveling from one location to another place for the express purpose of receiving (or consuming) wellness, dental, health or medical services. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, much of the published information and discussions in webinars about wellness, dental, health and medical tourism focuses exclusively on the impact that the pandemic has had on travel and the movement of individuals from one place to another. The impact of the pandemic on travel, as we know, has been severe. Even at the time of this writing, 18 months later, travel restrictions between and among countries are highly irregular, change often and are confusing.
What if we could think of health tourism as more than just someone traveling from one place to another place to consume services and then returning back? What if we could think of health tourism outside of the box? There are more types of health tourism than are typically discussed.
The best example are situations where the consumer in one location is treated by provider in a completely different location. Using remote monitoring or telemetry-enabled technology to observe, diagnose and treat disorders, diseases and illnesses. This is sometimes referred to as telehealth or telemedicine. Is this health tourism?
But maybe this idea isn’t really so far outside the box. The World Trade Organization (WTO) offers some structure and guidance here that can help. In its General Agreement on Trade in Services, the WTO describes different types of services that can be consumed or exchanged as “modes” of cross-border trade in services.
As can be seen in this table, “consumption abroad” or Mode 2. Cross-border trade in services, is only one type of health tourism. Another category is Mode 1. where the trade occurs through, “… electronic media”.
Outside the Box
The growth of digital health, telehealth and telemedicine has been nothing short of spectacular during the pandemic. With local and travel restrictions in place in many locations, and providers restricted from receiving consumers as before, the use and acceptance of digital solutions has skyrocketed. As an EU report stated:
They [digital solutions] have been used, among other things, for online medical consultations from home and for increasing efficiency in diagnosis and treatment of patients through telemedicine, which, like teleworking and online education, has been a novel experience for many.[i]
An article in the Harvard Business Review stated:
Because virtual care is now part of the new normal, health systems must construct a stronger support infrastructure that includes organizational, financial, and clinical structures and processes. They will have to step up their investments in digital health capabilities to cope with a tougher financial environment. And they should review how best to quickly and efficiently identify and conduct experiments with new digital health technologies.[ii]
Has health tourism kept up?
Even if we couldn’t or didn’t think outside the box before the pandemic, certainly this global disruption should force us all to reconsider the old model and think about health tourism differently. Radiological images are being transported seamlessly across the globe in GDPR/HIPAA compliant packets of information. We’ve known this for 40 years; radiology interpretation relies upon it.
Wellness, health and medical care has historically been an in-person, high-touch transaction. A major part of thinking outside the box in health tourism is reconsidering these traditional boundaries. Can a yoga class be taught via Zoom or Teams? At the other end of the spectrum, remote robotic surgical interventions are being deployed very quickly around the world.
Let’s assume that the global markets for medical and wellness tourism before the pandemic were approximately $44 billion $680 billion respectively. In the wellness tourism markets consumers consider both the travel and consuming wellness services as desired and anticipated activity, whereas in the medical tourism markets travel is more often seen as a barrier or obstacle to the needed medical interventions. Therefore, among medical consumers in particular, the increase application and utilization of telehealth and telemedicine has the potential to increase the overall market post recovery by 25 to 35%. Medical tourism providers and destinations should, therefore begin thinking outside the box as to how they can engage with prospective consumers in a variety of other source locations through virtual/channels. A similar benefit can be gained in the wellness health tourism market segments, as well. Although the estimates for potential increase are more difficult to derive, virtual/digital tools present opportunities to introduce treatments and destinations, and to engage consumer markets from many different source locations.
Why is it hard for providers to switch gears and adapt telehealth solutions? The restrictions aren’t technological – nor are they based on consumer resistance. Before the pandemic, consumers were ambivalent about digital and remote tools in healthcare. Since the pandemic, provider (doctor) acceptance has increased dramatically and consumer acceptance of virtual, digital healthcare has also been growing. The barriers are clearly the box – in other words, it’s our thinking that gets in the way.
Let’s rethink the question:
Is this health tourism?
[i] The rise of digital health technologies during the pandemic. April 14th 2021. See: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI(2021)690548
[ii] Glaser J. et al. What the Pandemic Means for Health Care’s Digital Transformation. Harvard Business Review, December 2020. See: https://hbr.org/2020/12/what-the-pandemic-means-for-health-cares-digital-transformation
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