In our recently published The Marketing Handbook for Health Tourism, my co-author and I focus on the importance of understanding the dynamics occurring in the regional markets for health tourism so as to develop effective plans, allocate resources and create profitable, sustainable businesses.
The regional variations in conditions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic makes this process even more important, while at the same time more difficult. Medical tourism markets around the world continue to experience whipsaw results, as positivity rates decline in some countries, while increasing in others.
Public health authorities in some countries are changing travel permissions/restrictions on a weekly basis!
Governments and healthcare systems in locations where cases are increasing, especially where the “Delta” variant is dominant, are trying to prepare for the worst, recalling the experiences in Spain, Italy and other locations where COVID-19 overwhelmed hospitals in general, and ICUs in particular. The recent trauma in India, which was woefully unprepared, is a painful reminder of how quickly infection rates can increase, producing a demand side shock within healthcare and medical infrastructure; just think of the shortage of oxygen.
In the midst of a public health crisis, it is unlikely that consumers will be willing or able to travel to that destination for non-medical, wellness or cosmetic procedures. And the publicity associated with these public health debacles, such as occurred in India, is likely to deter some consumers even after the situation clears up.
While many in the media look at “return to normal” or, “the new normal” these markets that we are seeing in health and medical tourism are certainly far from normal and will not return to normal very soon.
Differences in Market Segments
Differentiating effectively among wellness tourists, who will travel for a refreshing, renewal holiday, versus medical tourists who feel compelled to travel for cosmetic surgery because of a perceived “need” as well as medical travelers who have a life-threatening clinical diagnosis is critical.
These two market segments are very different, and will respond to different offers, as well as require different customer care. Both of these segments are motivated by a perceived need, and that’s where the similarity ends.
Wellness tourists are “escaping” what they have experienced as a prolonged period of isolation and monotony. They are motivated to change their experience so as to refresh themselves from the inside, and revive or renew something effervescent or non-physical – their spirit, their outlook, their attitude.
The cosmetic surgery tourist, on the other hand, has had months to contemplate some feature of their bodies which they consider no longer acceptable or tolerable, and are motivated by the need to change something about themselves. They are motivated to physically alter or correct some aspect of themselves on the outside. Many could say that the physical change sought by the cosmetic surgery traveler is in order to secure a non-physical improvement in self-perception or self-confidence. The bottom line from a marketing point of view is that these are distinct markets, with different motivations and therefore require their own messaging and supports.
Perceived Need v. Clinical Diagnosis
The third category, or market segment is the consumer with a clinical diagnosis requiring medical, physiological treatment. This the person with a noncommunicable disease such as arthritis, congestive heart failure or cancer requiring orthopedic surgery, heart valve replacement or radio & chemotherapy.
Many of these consumers (often called patients) delayed treatment during the pandemic. They may have been unable to access care because the hospitals where they live were completely occupied caring for patients with Covid 19, or they themselves were concerned about contracting the disease, and so refrained from attending the clinic or admitting themselves to the hospital.
These individuals present a very different challenge from wellness or cosmetic surgery travelers. They will exhibit a heightened sense of urgency, while also being very anxious about outcomes. These consumers often require a different level of support and case management, and frequently travel with companions who will also need customer care. Those who have delayed treatments may be more fragile, and this situation represents a further challenge.
The wellness and cosmetic surgery segments are motivated by perceived needs, and the needs were heightened by the pandemic lockdowns. The surge in demand that many providers of all types are experiencing, or will soon experience, are not “normal” but reflect the pent up demand from the pandemic-related lockdowns.
It important that we plan for the surge, then a reduction in the surge before the markets normalize.
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