How will COVID-19 shape medical tourism development?

 

COVID-19, an unknown term six months ago, has become the greatest fear of individuals and companies. And while much coverage in the media has tended to spread panic, some posts and articles, like Reuters, are now taking a more pragmatic approach.

How might COVID-19 change the shape of the medical travel market?

Like most sectors, the medical travel market includes providers of many different sizes.  Here’s how they might be affected: 

  • The small and market-sensitive: Mainly medical travel consultants, startups and small agencies (facilitators). These individuals tend to have limited budgets and cash flow, and are most sensitive to fluctuations in medical travel flow due to ‘COVpanic’. They are likely to cut back on marketing and customer services immediately, dismiss personnel (if they have any) and potentially even disappear from the market. It may also be difficult for them to restart their business after the COVID-19 crisis. 
  • The medium size medical travel providers: these professionals, mainly average size clinics or agencies, are in a better position. They might consider the COVpanic just as another crisis, possibly downsize their staff, reduce their spending, and cancel their participation in events. They will be more committed to maintaining their business through the crisis. 
  • The large and well-established businesses in medical travel: these professionals, mainly large clinics, hospitals, hospital groups and the largest agencies have heavily invested in an international patient business which has, pre-COVID-19, generated high revenues. They are the most resilient to a business downturn due to COVpanic. It is likely they will continue to invest in this business, and will take a pragmatic approach to foreign patient cancellations. For them, this is just another crisis that will pass. 

There is one other provider group within the medical travel sector, who could be any sized, whom I call the “wise ones”.  They will use their time when there are fewer customer interactions, for preparation and reorganisation. They will update themselves about what is currently changing in the international patient market, train their people, rewrite their business plan,  apply healthcare protocols, and search for new markets. They will also try to identify the ‘where and when’ of future opportunities once the COVpanic subsides. 

Impact on medical travel events

Event organisers are as sensitive to the impact of COVID-19 as tourism providers. Many medical travel events, especially the ones that were scheduled during the first six months of 2020 have been cancelled or moved to a future date. 

This has been influenced by the personal choice of people not wanting to travel, but also in several countries there are now national restrictions on public gatherings.

Seasoned event organisers have downsized their events (and expenses) by booking smaller halls and anticipating fewer delegates, rather than stepping out of the market entirely. Medical travel exhibitions have proved even more sensitive than conferences, as they need a high number of anticipated visitors in order to be sustained. 

In this space, we might see live streaming and use of technology to facilitate knowledge sharing and networking by remote delegates, take a more central role in medical travel events in the future.

The IMTJ Medical Travel Summit 2020 remains scheduled for September 22nd - 24th, 2020 in Madrid. 

Planning recovery after COVID-19: it’s about patient perception 

The more pragmatic media articles predict that, like other flu, health or political crises, COVID-19 will pass.  We just don’t know when. 

Some physicians believe that it will peak soon, then decrease during the summer months. 

To attract international travellers as tourism picks up again, flights and accommodation costs may be very competitively priced. Treatment costs will possibly follow, along with the other related services in medical travel. The first medical travellers after COVID-19 are likely to enjoy their treatment journey at very affordable prices and with no waiting time at all. 

The established medical travel destinations, whose governments and health bodies have best managed to contain COVID-19 may be seen as ‘safer’ countries for patients looking at healthcare options abroad.  Medical travel providers in these countries who have survived the COVpanic are the ones who are likely to enjoy the first fruits of the post COVID-19 era. 

Finally, lessons from COVID-19 are an opportunity for accreditation companies. Healthcare quality assurance is now an even hotter topic and so far, many hospitals with certifications from high quality accreditation companies have been well prepared to handle the crisis. A line of protocols that was applied to hospitals (mainly private) has played a significant role in identifying this virus early, so protecting the rest of the hospital patients. With other hospitals, maybe COVID-19 will be the motivation  for providers to improve and become safer for the patient.  

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