Building Georgia’s medical travel sector

 

The development of tourism is one of the key areas the Georgian government wants to develop. It is looking at the promotion of high-quality sustainable tourism development and the transformation of Georgia into a four-season tourism destination.

The country also has potential in both medical tourism and wellness tourism.

Potential for medical tourism in Georgia

The research conducted by the University of Georgia aimed at exploring the potential and perspectives of Georgia in medical tourism, taking in the scope of healthcare facilities, medical services and customer service, and identifying barriers and challenges for medical tourism development.

It found that the country had the following advantages for medical travel:

  • The country’s healthcare sector is competitive and highly developed in a number of medical services (cardiac surgery, cosmetic surgery, IVF, dentistry).
  • Private clinics have strong success rates, state-of-the-art equipment, qualified health professionals and experience.
  • The country is price-competitive compared to other regional medical tourism destinations such as Turkey and Dubai.
  • Georgia’s geographical location is at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and has a competitive advantage compared to others in the Caucasus region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and South Russia).

In comparison with other branches of tourism, the research has found that medical tourism has special features that support the competitiveness of the sector, including:

  • Long stays - due to treatment-based services, the length of stay for medical tourism is more than for other tourism products.
  • For some procedures patients need to travel to the country of treatment more than once.
  • Patients rarely travel alone - most travel with another person.
  • There is a higher specific expenditure due to the specialised services.
  • Lower seasonality; independent of the weather.

Sources of medical travellers

At present, the majority of medical tourists come from Azerbaijan, Chechnya, North Ossetia, and Ingushetia. Recently, an increasing number of patients are from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and medical providers are working to attract patients from Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The source countries for medical tourists arriving in Georgia differ by the type of medical service provided. For oncological and cardiac surgery services, patients mainly come from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. For cosmetic surgery and hair transplants, patients come from Israel, Russia, Belorussia, Kazakhstan (Actao area), Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Qatar.

The research tried to find the number of foreign patients in 2017, 2018 and 2019, but only a few clinics and no hospitals were able to provide figures. For assisted reproduction providers, 23% of foreign patients in 2017-2019 are from China, 15% from the USA, 14% from Israel, 7% from Sweden, 4% from Australia, 4% from India, and 33% from other countries worldwide. For dental treatment, patients come from Israel, Qatar, and Kuwait.

Patients from bordering countries and post-Soviet Union countries go to Georgia for better medical quality. The quality is higher in Turkey, but since the cost of travelling and treatment there is also higher, patients prefer Georgia.

For Armenian patients, price is the determinant of travel. Medical services are well developed in Armenia, especially cardiac surgery and cosmetic surgery, but prices for treatment are 50% higher in Armenia.

For assisted reproduction, the legal framework is favourable in Georgia for commercial surrogacy and in-vitro fertilisation.

Barriers to development

Medical tourism in Georgia is at the development stage. Private clinics’ efforts in search of potential source countries and attracting medical tourists are fragmented, relying on the hospital sector and agencies, with no state support.

Although state healthcare is of average quality, over 90% of Georgia’s healthcare consists of private hospitals and clinics. There are 273 hospitals with 16,000 beds.

In a 2020 report published by Georgia investment bank, Galt & Taggart, the bed occupancy rate was 49% in 2019 and the average duration of hospital stay was five days.

But hospitals face problems in raising funds to invest in quality improvement or for the innovative development of medical services. One solution for these problems, the researchers argue, is to develop medical tourism in Georgia.

The research split the barriers for medical tourism development in Georgia into three levels. The main barriers identified were:

  • Georgia not being positioned as a medical tourism destination country on the global market.
  • A lack of standardisation in medical service providers due to the government’s weak role in regulation and monitoring of medical quality.
  • The lack of a strategy for medical tourism development or the government’s engagement and integrated efforts among state entities.
  • The absence of direct flights with target/source countries.
  • The low quality of travel services and relatively high prices of tickets.
  • The weak legal framework with regard to protecting foreign patients’ rights.
  • The low levels of malpractice insurance.
  • The lack of guarantees and reimbursement of damage- for complicated cases.

Second-level barriers are:

  • Low levels of awareness regarding medical tourism among the management of medical facilities.
  • The lack of communication, collaboration and cooperation among managers of clinics involved.
  • Problems related to inadequate communication skills.
  • Delayed response or provision of a treatment plan.
  • The language barrier (especially in low-skilled medical personnel, nurses).
  • The pricing policy for medical services for medical tourists.
  • The lack of competitive pricing.
  • The low use of marketing and advertising to attract medical tourists.

Third-level barriers are:

  • Low levels of cooperation and coordination among medical tourism agencies and medical facilities
  • The small number of agencies in Georgia
  • Problems responding to medical tourists’ various religious-cultural specifications

Research recommendations

The following recommendations were made by the researchers, for future medical tourism development in Georgia:

  • It is essential to position and promote the country to target markets, so that Georgia is recognised, globally, as a medical tourism destination.
  • The government must elaborate an appropriate strategic plan for medical tourism development, to strengthen its role and engagement, and be in a leadership position to integrate the efforts of various stakeholders.
  • The government should provide centralised regulation, medical service quality control, and standardisation of medical services. It is essential to establish an accreditation system of healthcare facilities.
  • Coordination and cooperation among medical tourism agencies and healthcare facilities should be improved Furthermore, the management and administrative personnel of clinics should be trained to increase qualifications and awareness about the requirements and specific features of medical tourism.
  • Cooperation between medical facilities and spa-resorts of the country should be encouraged to integrate the services of both sectors.
  • To improve the accountability of statistical data about medical tourists, it should be mandatory for medical facilities to register information about foreign patients in a pre-defined form.
  • To develop the direction of medical tourism, it is important to establish direct flights with target countries.

The researchers conclude that Georgia, as a medical tourism destination country, should be put on the international medical tourism radar. But to achieve this goal it will need the united efforts of a governmental team and various stakeholders of the industry.

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