Prospecting for medical tourists: lucky guess or common sense?


While I was travelling to a medical travel conference recently, I started to wonder why medical travel providers travel.  Obviously, some of them cross boundaries to share their expertise and others go to obtain knowledge, but I find that most of these people seem to be travelling for only one reason: finding new buyers for their services.  But are medical travel providers looking in the right place?

It happens pretty often in my meetings with hospitals and clinics.  International marketing and development teams always ask me how to approach this or that country to promote one or other treatment.  But when I quiz them on how they’ve chosen that particular country and what criteria they’ve used in making their decision, their answers seem poorly supported by data.  Admittedly medical travel reporting is still in its infancy and there’s not enough reliable global data, however I see a lot of managers making decisions based on either ‘lucky guess’ or by prioritising hope over reality

While our global market does not seem to have norms and nice, homogenised records per destination, we do still have our common sense plus access to at least some indicative data that can be exploited.

People will not just go anywhere for medical treatment

The first obvious criteria when considering which country to target is distance and accessibility. As IMTJ often points out, people will not just travel to anywhere for health treatment. There are some specific factors which influence their choice of destination including: proximity, language similarly, religion similarly, currency difference, quality indicators of the health system and, more vaguely, a ‘general preference’ for that country.   While it doesn’t necessarily mean they would definitely go there for treatment; a tourist who loves a particular country and is familiar with the people and the destination could be considered a more likely medical travel customer. General inbound tourism trend data would therefore help make a more informed targeting decision.

Customers will choose their own country if they can

Promoting treatments to a target country that already has an established national healthcare system and a full range of treatments will probably prove to be the wrong choice.  Unless there is a long waiting list, people who can receive treatment in their own country (particularly if their national health system pays for it) will probably choose to be treated at home.

However, countries with poor infrastructure or a basic healthcare system can make an excellent target market for medical travel providers who wish to develop their international business for treatments, for example in oncology, heart surgery, orthopaedics and general surgery.  Just look at the current trends of Azerbaijan patients flowing to Turkish hospitals for oncology, and Bulgarian patients travelling to Greece, which is understandable due to the less developed healthcare system in their own country. These countries are usually neglected as target markets, as most managers will have made their decision to target wealthy nations – i.e. just ‘following the money’.

Don’t follow the money

Russia is a classic example of new customer targeting decisions based on hope rather than reality. We’ve all seen a big interest in this market in the last few years.  Hundreds of thousands of Euros have been very generously spent by clinics and inbound medical travel destinations on sponsorships, expos and other events in Russia.  Many have not received even a single Russian patient. The reason is plain and simple: not all people travel to all countries for all treatments!  The ‘follow the money’ concept is the quickest way for losing you money, and time.

Are you offering the right treatments?

When it comes to treatments that are not covered by national health systems or insurance companies, then things change.  Patients from developed countries will travel to a destination of their choice for certain treatments including dentistry, IVF and cosmetic surgery and therefore these people make an excellent market target, if you are offering treatments that meet their needs.

And then there are target markets for ‘niche’ treatments when a person travels to another country because what they are looking for is not provided or perhaps not even permitted in their country. For this, we see different trends. Couples who are looking for surrogate mothers, or homosexual couples who are looking to become parents through surrogacy, have been reported travelling to countries to which they would not travel for any of the above-mentioned treatments.

By the time I got to my medical travel conference, I came to conclusion that there is enough space for everyone in the medical travel market, as long as providers have a deep understanding of the criteria influencing buying decisions. Choosing the right target markets saves a lot of time, unnecessary spending and disappointments, and shows quicker results.  Otherwise, you’ll just end up looking like gardeners trying to plant flowers in the dessert.

The IMTJ Medical Tourism Summit 2018 (Athens, 21-24 May) features seminars and workshops dedicated to effective medical tourism destination development.


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