How will medical travel be different in 2021?


Nobody can predict when the coronavirus crisis will be over, but there are encouraging signs from China and some European countries.

The timing and strength of the travel and economic rebound will be based on how freely we can travel around the world. Country A may exit lockdown, but other countries may be on a different trajectory. 

Most global economic forecasts predict an economic recovery by late 2020 and a rebound in 2021; but other countries argue that this is optimistic and we will not see growth until 2022.

After any crisis, people initially look to the reassurance of the familiar and the known. Once tourism starts again, it will initially be strongly domestic and sub-regional, to neighbouring countries. Domestic medical travel will be the first medical tourism sector to return. 

While there may be a strong surge of repeat travel to longer-haul destinations, as people look to go back to places that have good memories, much medical tourism is not repeat business. The scale of outbound medical travel will instead not only be dictated by the opening of countries to tourism, but also how they have been seen to deal with the virus. 

The rebound of inbound medical travel may be slower in those countries (including the USA and UK) that took longer to respond to the crisis. Attitudes of outbound Chinese medical tourists to such destinations, for example, could vary from caution to outright fear.

The medical travel sector is not high on the list of businesses queuing for state support.  In many places, states are not even letting it join the queue. This has been compounded by a noticeable lack of strong leadership and guidance during this crisis by global and most national medical tourism promotional organisations (with a few national exceptions).

While many health insurers and most healthcare businesses for example have gone way beyond what they are legally required to do, some medical tourism businesses have sought to make money by offering paid for training during the crisis and doing nothing else of note.

So, what might medical travel look like in 2021?

More thought on choosing a destination

Medical travel has been so easy for so long, with a huge choice on where to go. 

What influences the choice of Country A rather than Country B is however a topic that the industry continues to grapple with. Some might hope that medical tourism will start again, with no change in the main reasons for going to another region or country. But, post-pandemic, where people choose to go for treatment may well change.

By 2021 it is probably safe to assume that travellers will put a lot more thought into where they go next and how they travel. And medical tourists will probably be much more aware of where they go and how ‘medically safe’ the country seems to be to them.

Those established medical travel destinations that have had a lower number of COVID-19 cases and fewer deaths relating to the virus are likely to have a faster recovery.  Some medical travel companies and medical tourism-dependent hospitals and clinics will not survive. 

At the beginning we may see fantastic bargains to kick-start demand on travel. But medical tourism may face other barriers, such as pent-up local demand for delayed treatments, which will continue to fill hospital beds; or a shortage of suitable hotel accommodation, as some operators may have gone into administration or scaled back. 

More personal help and handholding 

The experience of living through a global pandemic will   fundamentally change us, possibly forever. The desire to travel is likely to remain, but motivations will have profoundly changed and choices will be influenced by different factors. 

The post-pandemic medical tourist will want more reassurance, more personal recommendations and more information on the risk to health and safety with more gravity than ever before. 

There may be a pent-up demand for travel and medical tourism, once people feel safe.   Medical travel destinations that can show how they are keeping the community and visitors safe will help to instill confidence in travelling amongst future visitors. 

Pre-travel health checks could reduce patient flow

While governments have promised to support major airlines with funding, whether or not those promises will be kept and in what way is all still uncertain. What is almost certain is that the cost and complexity of air travel will change, possibly with fewer airlines.

Airlines may demand that passengers pass health checks before boarding. They may require health certificates to confirm that the traveller is virus free. Airlines are already using COVID-19 testing self-service machines.

At least for 2020 and probably into 2021, destinations may test for COVID-19 and possibly other diseases at their borders. Some countries may extend limits on travel from the countries worst affected by the virus.

Entrance may be refused unless a traveller has a certificate of immunity (showing recovery from an infection or vaccination, once there's vaccines available). Wristbands with barcodes and apps on phones are a possibility.

How this will affect inbound medical tourists could be complex. Some countries may in effect stop inbound medical tourism for some patients with pre-existing health conditions and illnesses, by only allowing healthy people into their country.

Fear of unhealthy overseas travellers may make some countries and hospitals think again and decide that the income from medical tourism is not worth the risk.

Wellness sector will grow

COVID-19 may make more people think again about their health and lifestyles.  Wellness tourism was already on a significant upturn before the pandemic, and there will be further growth potential for this sector in all its forms. 

In conclusion, medical tourism in 2021 will be different from the business we knew in 2019. Countries and medical travel organisations will have to work much harder than before to get business.  And with any state support for the sector being highly unlikely, recovery is going to be driven by individual initiative.

Support for medical travel and healthcare businesses

IMTJ is scanning the news and announcements during this COVID-19 crisis, to help you keep abreast of changes made by governments to general inbound and outbound travel and tourism and, where specified, to medical travel in particular. You can find details for over 140 medical tourism destinations and countries, covering the changes imposed in terms of border control, quarantine and testing requirements and restrictions on citizens.

You can access articles and analysis about the impact of the pandemic on medical travel by choosing the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) topic on the IMTJ website.

LaingBuisson, publishers of IMTJ, has launched a Coronavirus Toolkit, providing free access for healthcare businesses to advice from the UK Government, lawyers and advisors; to help support those in need; to learn from sector leaders; and to contribute on topics that matter and prepare for the future.



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