It takes more than two to tango in medical tourism

 

International medical travel was the focus of a series of meetings in Buenos Aires from 12 - 14 June 2017.  The 2nd International Medical Tourism Congress in Argentina featured a wide array of speakers, with topics ranging from global projections and market factors, the role of insurance providers in the medical travel markets and social media strategies to generate leads. Representatives from Uruguay, Canada, the United States, and Costa Rica presented their perspectives on the potential of their source marketplaces for Argentina as a destination.

Presentations were sandwiched between two days of ambitious tours, allowing participants to see firsthand the facilities and operations of the health and wellness providers in Buenos Aires.

Well built and well used healthcare facilities

The healthcare infrastructure in Argentina is outstanding. Its private hospitals are extremely well staffed with doctors, and have the latest design and technological features. However, there is, according to many, a shortage of professional licensed nurses. What was also clear to me was that these private hospitals are chock a block full. The ambulatory/outpatient centres are jammed, and inpatient rooms appeared to be occupied at 90% plus. This is consistent with secondary source data that shows that hospital utilisation in Argentina is higher than most countries. Many seasoned executives and doctors at the Congress, and on the tours, talked about adding capacity by building additional beds, or entirely new hospitals or clinics.

Argentina - a regional magnet for medical tourism?

Because of its open immigration policy, and the guarantee of free healthcare for all, Argentina has attracted a stream of medical travellers from nearby countries including Uruguay, Bolivia and Paraguay. According to estimates presented by Miguel Cane of the Camara Argentina de Turismo Medico, there were approximately 12,000 foreigners who consumed medical services in 2016, representing approximately USD 300 million in total turnover. Some of these "medical tourists" are actually foreign, ex-pats living and working in Argentina. These numbers seem ambitious, especially considering that a significant number of the actual medical travellers from Uruguay, Bolivia and Paraguay are not accessing the high cost, high value private health care system within Argentina, but are consumers of lower socioeconomic status, probably primarily accessing the public health system.

A balancing act

There are some ambitious, enterprising, healthcare executives in Argentina who see the opportunity to develop private capacity, and attract additional consumers from countries in the Americas, including Canada, Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil. As has been learned elsewhere, this further development of the private healthcare capacity within Argentina will have to be done with careful attention to the needs of the local consumers as well as the return on investment. And while there are plenty of doctors (Argentina has one of the highest ratios of doctors per 100,000 population in the world), there is a lack of nurses and other qualified allied health professionals, and this could definitely put a strain on capacity and the economic model.

The steps to the dance

The Chamber for Medical Tourism is enthusiastic about Argentina's future for international medical travel. International medical travel is seen as an economic benefit, generating revenue and high-paying jobs. Leaders from Ministries of Tourism were enthusiastic about the qualities which they believe will differentiate Argentina and Buenos Aires. But just like a tango, which requires extraordinary cooperation, coordination and practice, the steps to the dance of producing sustainable, profitable medical travel businesses will require important, and perhaps difficult strategic decisions.

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