Facilities and accommodation providers have a tentative relationship with the industry

 

Check-up and check in

Many visitor-patients would rather recuperate in less hospital-like surroundings, after all, and since most are escorted on their travels by a family member or companion, the medical-travel industry presents significant opportunities for the hospitality sector. Despite the obvious synergies between health facilities and hotels and serviced apartments, interviews IMTJ conducted with players from both sides in different regional markets revealed varying stages of initiatives and success. Like the medical-travel industry itself, this area of business is evolving daily as entities size up each other's needs and determine long-term benefits. Here is the state of play in some key markets.

Manila

"We're definitely open to the idea, but so far we have no formal agreement with anybody," is how Dr Jack Arroyo, president of the American Eye Center in the Ortigas district of Metro Manila sums up its relationship with accomodation providers. The centre attracts patients from Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore and Guam and the US (mostly Filipino immigrants) eager to undergo LASIK eye surgery, and Arroyo says the 12-year-old centre has performed about 30,000 such procedures.

There are a number of reasons for the lack of formal agreements. Chiefly, Lasik results are, on the whole, quickly apparent, so foreign patients need only stay overnight, and barring any complications, can fly off the next day. Located in the bustling Shangri-La Plaza mall, the centre is ringed by several hospitality providers, the nearest being the adjacent EDSA Shangri-La, while the Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Linden Suites and Richmonde Hotel are only minutes away. The centre, however, charges only for the operation, citing price competition as a disincentive to package the operation with accommodation.

"Since business is very competitive, margins are thin," says Arroyo. "We are satisfied with the fee (about US$1,477 for both eyes) that we charge, because the volume makes up for things. It's really up to the travel agent to add their mark-up." Arroyo also points out that, at present, "we're the ones who inform patients about the nearby hotels. We're getting nothing for this".

Lourdes Juco and Cecile Weber, sales and marketing directors of the Makati Shangri-La and EDSA Shangri-La respectively, say that following the Department of Tourism's directive last year to go after medical travellers, the Shangri-La hotels launched packages targeting them, but response has been slow. Juco observes: "We know there are guests who come for check-ups and treatments, but they haven't availed themselves of our offer, nor do they tell us they're here for medical purposes."

Weber adds: "Even if the hospitals recommend us, many of the patients usually prefer to make their own arrangements, especially the balikbayans [overseas Filipinos], who would rather stay with their relatives. If they're booked by travel agents, the travel agents do not inform us that they are medical tourists."

EDSA Shangri-La, however, isn't deterred by the lukewarm reaction to its promotions and will continue to market in this direction. Weber says, "We want these travellers, since they are known to stay longer and spend more in the hotel."

In fact, the EDSA Shangri-La plans to expand the definition of medical tourism to include the wellness component, capitalising on the opening this month of its new Chi Spa (see box, page 65), a brand that has been successively rolled out across the Shangri-La network. Besides Chi's signature Tibetan therapies, local techniques such as hilot (the ancient Filipino art of relaxing stressed muscles) and dagdagay (traditional foot bath using rattan or bamboo sticks) will star in the menu. Six rooms in the hotel's Garden Wing have been designated as Chi guestrooms, their interiors described as "nirvana-like" to mirror the spa's philosophy.

Dr Eugene Ramos, director, medical management and services development unit of the brand-new Medical City, also in the Ortigas area, stresses that an accommodation provider or travel agent seeking a relationship with the hospital "needs to understand our position and how we market ourselves".

"There shouldn't be any discrepancies between our values and their values - and that is to understand the needs and wants of the patients as well as the nature of the procedure," he says. "Due to the nature of their stay, they cannot be charged on a daily basis."

Cebu

In Cebu City, the Philippines' second gateway, the Cebu Doctors' Hospital - a network of five facilities - has been vigorously laying the groundwork for medical travel. Hospital administrator Oscar Tuason, who has visited the facilities of India's Apollo Group and Bangkok's Bumrungrad International Hospital, is confident his city will be able to compete on the world stage. "Our strength lies in Lasik eye surgery, executive check-ups and heart surgery," he says. "In the last year, we received a lot of enquiries. The Canadians, especially, came with requests focusing on cosmetic procedures and Lasik. And we'll be doing kidney transplants soon." Markets such as Europe, the US, Japan and Korea continue to provide a steady stream of patients.

Cebu Doctors' enjoys close links with major resorts on Mactan Island such as Shangri-La, Plantation Bay and White Sands and the Cebu Midtown and Marriott downtown, although Tuason admits that during peak holiday periods, securing rooms can be a challenge. A Korean travel agent is, in fact, in talks with White Sands at Maribago Beach on Mactan to allocate an entire wing for groups. "And White Sands is willing," Tuason reports.

Patients, he explains, can be quite fussy when choosing a place to recover. "Beach resorts, such as those on Mactan Island, win out because these are close to the water - that matters a lot to the convalescent, as well as seeing a lot of greenery and vegetation." Tuason observes that their partner properties were handling the needs of medical-travel guests very professionally, citing the presence of on-site dieticians and nutritionists. "But perhaps some of the staff could undergo additional emergency training such as CPR."

In three years' time, Cebu Doctors' intends to add a leisure property to its hospital in Naga City, a 45-minute drive south of Cebu. "This will develop into a sort of retirement-resort complex," says Tuason, adding it will mostly likely cater to Japanese pensioners.

Charging hotels for referrals is still not in Cebu Doctors' mindset, as it believes in generating income from volume. "We're not greedy," Tuason reasons. "We're just happy sending patients to establishments where they will be looked after, and we can also provide a caregiver who will attend to the medical traveller from the time he or she steps foot in Cebu to the post-op recovery period, even if that takes place in a resort. We can even offer a corporate discount to groups we work with."

New Delhi

In India, tight room supply in cities such as the capital New Delhi is hampering initiatives between health facilities and hotels from developing further. Sanjay Rai, director of sales and marketing of Max Healthcare, points to "the astronomical rates hotels are quoting" as a rising deterrent to medical travel. "How do you expect travellers, especially those on a budget, to afford such prices?" he asks.

"There has to be a paradigm shift in hoteliers' thinking. Ultimately, the medical traveller spends comparably with, if not more than, the business traveller, being confined to the hotel. Room tariffs simply have to come down to get this market to see value in coming here and getting treated at our hospitals."

Benita Sharma, general manager of Sheraton New Delhi and one of Max Healthcare's partners, says that the real secret of a successful tie-up with a medical facility is staff who are responsive to the patients' needs. "Our chefs are well versed in handling any dietary requirement. The staff has had training in basic first aid, and since Max is only minutes away, they can be rushed there.

"We are also equipped with rooms with hard floors, wheelchairs and oxygen cylinders. There's also a doctor on 24-hour standby."

But all that medical expertise and preparation by hotels would be useless, says Sharma, if world trust in India's ability to treat and cure according to international standards is not strengthened. "If quality healthcare can be had at a lower price, and with the same facilities, that would matter a lot to people. However confidence [in India] will take a while. What's needed is a major marketing campaign to bolster our credibility."

Bangkok

Bangkok hospitals, recognised pioneers in the medical- travel industry, continue to focus on what they do best - providing healthcare services - and only occasionally get involved in ensuring accommodation arrangements are to their patients' liking.

Phyathai Hospital is an example, with its current Medical Leisure package (see box opposite), whose non-medical elements cover transfers and accommodation arrangements and leisure activities thrown in. Bangkok International Hospital has an arrangement with the airport-limousine company to provide transport from the hospital (see box opposite) but subcontracts travel otherwise. It also operates its own serviced residences, called the BMC (Bangkok Medical Center), with 38 units.

Two accommodation providers that caught on early to the potential of medical travel and responded to it were the JW Marriott Bangkok and the Ascott Group (which is the operator of serviced residence brands Ascott, Somerset and the newly introduced Citadines).

The JW, a 10-minute walk from Bumrungrad International Hospital, Thailand's first JCI-accredited hospital, has been welcoming frequent visitors from Hong Kong and Singapore, incorporating check-ups and procedures into their shopping weekends. Says Nick Tse, former JW resident manager and now general manager of Courtyard by Marriott Bangkok, "They usually stay two to three days. The check-up takes only about half a day, with results available on the same day, if not the next."

The Middle East market, which represents big business for the hotel, lingers between seven and 14 days, making the most of the long trip from its part of the world, interspersing medical treatments with serious retail therapy. The spa, swimming pool and suites that connect to other rooms are amenities that rank high with these travellers, who most often travel as a family. According to Tse, they prefer exploring Bangkok and enjoying the hotel amenities rather than flying south to Phuket to try JW's sister properties there, the JW Marriott and Renaissance.

Ascott has gone the extra mile to register all long-stay guests billeted in any Ascott, Somerset and Citadines property with Bangkok's BNH Hospital as well provide other privileges. These, says Celina Low, vice-president, corporate communications - brand & marketing, Ascott International Management, include the services of a registered nurse or doctor to help manage any existing medical condition of the clients when travelling from the airport to an Ascott property, preliminary health screening at the Health Kiosk located in the lobby and advice from the health advisor who can clarify the various health packages available to the resident (see box opposite).

Supap Sirins, general manager of Marriott Executive Apartments, adds that a serviced residence has the obvious advantage of space over a regular hotel room or suite, especially for an individual who is recovering from a procedure: "Some desire the privacy and being able to cook when they want to."

Singapore

Traditionally, hotels in the Lion City set their caps for corporate and leisure clientele. Now, it is medical travel that is keeping them busy, repositioning for this niche, scouring for fresh partnerships and fine-tuning their products and services to suit new demands. Mei Ling Tan, director of marketing and business development, Sheraton Towers, admits that since this field is a new one, "but a growing one", they are still exploring which medical facilities to approach.

Sheraton's quiet location just off bustling Orchard Road is, says Tan, one of the prime reasons patients choose the hotel, something she says they will emphasise in future promotional material.

Sonny Ang, area director of sales & marketing for InterContinental (Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Maldives), is responsible for the InterContinental Singapore, close to Raffles Hospital in the Bugis Junction area. The hotel aims to work with the hospital to promote a wellness package aimed at expats based in China, Vietnam and Cambodia. "While Singapore may be more expensive for check-ups than Manila or Bangkok," says Ang, "the quality of service and world-class technology is the big draw."

Traders Hotel, Shangri-La's mid-range tier, is only a short taxi ride from Camden Medical Centre and Gleneagles Hospital, while next door is Tanglin Mall with its specialist and holistic clinics. According to Tracy Ng, the property's sales and marketing director, medical visitors stay from three to five days for appointments or longer if surgery and subsequent recuperation is required. Ramps located at the hotel's entrance, restaurant and health club help convalescents move with ease around the premises.

Traders' sizeable swimming pool and spa help create a resort feel, and having the adjacent mall (featuring an excellent supermarket) is a big bonus. "This makes it easier for them to pick up sundries or over-the-counter supplies," Ng says. The three "wheelchair-accessible" guestrooms also come in handy if prescribed, and these come with the toilet facilities to match and an "emergency help" button.

While some staff are trained to dispense basic first aid, they also know to alert nearby Gleneagles Hospital, which has paramedics available for more serious matters.

Far East Hospitality - with six properties scattered throughout the city, including one in Changi Village - can certainly cater to medical guests. Five of its hotels: the Elizabeth, Golden Landmark, Changi Village Hotel, Orchard Hotel and Albert Court - are near hospitals such as Mount Elizabeth, Gleneagles, Raffles and Changi General. Patients can choose to either walk to their appointments or take a taxi.

FURTHER CONTENT PUBLISHED BY THIS AUTHOR

India powers ahead

Articles, 01 October, 2008

India's is becoming a major hub of medical travel

Manila's expertise

Articles, 26 July, 2008

Manila shows off it's expertise in international medical travel

The value of medical travel

Articles, 01 July, 2008

The industry discusses the best way to describe itself

Caring and curing

Articles, 01 May, 2008

The Philippines hopes to build on it's reputation with service quality

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