Why do Chinese medical travellers choose the UK?

 

Revenues for UK independent hospitals are at best flat, and for some are in decline. Healthcare industry specialists, LaingBuisson, have recently stated that the UK market contraction over recent years is due in part to a downturn in international patient demand, especially from the Middle East.

This has left the UK’s private hospitals and clinics, particularly those in London where international patients can make up 15-30% of annual revenue, re-thinking which destinations to target for new customers.  Coming off that list except perhaps for very specialist treatments, could be the Middle East, which has ambitions to be a major healthcare destination wanting their own international patients (think Dubai, and an increasingly ambitious Abu Dhabi).  With Brexit uncertainties, investment in European promotion activity over the next 12 months may also seem unduly risky. Instead, the Chinese market as a source for international patients has become an increasingly attractive option.

This was the driver for the launch of MEDii Healthcare (MEDii) earlier this year.  Using previous expertise in advising UK SMEs on how to promote their services to Chinese consumers, founder Lynzi Wang is providing bi-lingual healthcare and concierge services to connect Chinese patients to suitable UK healthcare treatment. Here, Lynzi has some answers about why Chinese patients are choosing treatment in the UK.

Why are Chinese people travelling for healthcare?

Chinese medical travellers are not all necessarily being pushed out of China; far from it, there are some very good hospitals now in mainland China. But with the growth of income and the emerging wealthy 'global citizen', comes an increasing awareness in China that there are international healthcare options. More and more Chinese patients know they can now shop around for treatments on a global scale. They are realising they can find high quality healthcare that is at a similar price to what they might spend for the same treatment in China.

For rare, complex or life-threatening health conditions it is also becoming more common for mainland Chinese patients to seek out a second opinion from doctors abroad. In these cases, they are still likely to travel outside of China for the treatment, to places where they can access the latest drugs under trial, for example, or the most up-to-date technology.

Why are Chinese patients attracted to UK healthcare?

There is a large diaspora of Chinese citizens living and studying in the UK who, with help from bilingual nurses and doctors, are willing to pay for private healthcare in the UK. When these citizens return home, they are more likely to choose the UK for medical treatment, based on their pre-existing emotional links to the country.

Their connection with the UK also significantly influences the choice of destination by a much wider group of mainland Chinese who are considering outbound medical travel. If a potential medical traveller is considering treatment in perhaps Japan, the US or the UK, they are much more likely to choose the UK if they already know friends or relatives living there, and they have their recommendation.

There are also strong cultural connections between China and the UK, which I believe is often underutilised as a selling point for UK businesses. Both countries have rich histories, a deep cultural heritage and society which involves nobility and royalty. These similarities and traditions are very appealing for the Chinese.

Chinese people also appreciate the role of the NHS in producing high quality doctors and nurses. They may well have come across several Hong Kong and Malaysian doctors working in China, who have been trained in the UK.

What influences their choice of UK hospital or clinic?

Different Chinese patients have different value systems influencing how they choose their healthcare treatment.

For some, it is all about personal recommendation and reputation; others are more price sensitive; and another group will just look for the ‘best’ treatment available, be it machines, drugs, doctors or services. UK private healthcare has advantages in all these areas, from the high level of personalised care on offer, to the very latest advanced imaging technology or cyber knife cancer treatment.

Even though we only formally launched MEDii this year, we have seen a significant increase in enquiries from overseas Chinese customers, looking for advice on UK healthcare treatment. From our experience, I would put word of mouth recommendations from trusted associates, friends and family, and the reputation of the hospital or clinic as the most important influences on choice for Chinese patients.

I have found that the number of false healthcare reviews online, for example, via Baidu, has meant that Chinese customers are increasingly sceptical of relying purely on online searches as a way of choosing treatment.

Almost as important for Chinese patients, however, is the proposed patient pathway and the perceived ease of access to the treatment. Before travelling, Chinese people like to prepare by knowing exactly what is needed and what will be done.  They are quite organised and like to minimise uncertainties. They want to know the price and the proposed treatment plan, especially if it’s a serious illness. This is where an agent like MEDii, offering access to bilingual registered nurses and healthcare escorts, can help to smooth the process.

How can UK private healthcare improve when targeting Chinese medical travellers?

The ongoing challenge for UK hospitals and clinics seeking more international Chinese patients is tackling the low awareness of private healthcare options in the UK.

For those who might not know the UK well, potential medical travellers from China are probably not thinking beyond their knowledge and the reputation of the NHS. This image often suffers from the frequent negative publicity in the UK media, and picked up in Chinese news, about the state of NHS healthcare. Chinese medical travellers need to see the UK as a medical tourism destination overall, offering a choice of many good hospitals and clinics.

The UK private healthcare sector must be more co-ordinated in its efforts at promoting their offer to the mainland China market.  This needs greater collaboration both between private hospitals and clinics, and with the UK government, to promote healthcare beyond the reputation of the NHS. Healthcare UK, the British government agency set up to promote the UK healthcare sector overseas, is working on it but much more needs to be done.

I know individual UK hospitals like The Royal Marsden and Great Ormond Street Hospital have been active in China for many years; and there’s some exciting recent promotion work in China being done by both The London Clinic and HCA. It’s not good enough however to just promote a single hospital or institution. Chinese patients need to feel reassured that if they don’t choose one particular UK hospital or clinic, then they still have a choice of many others that are equally good, because they have faith in the UK’s private provision as a whole.

Will Trump or Brexit have an impact on inbound Chinese patients to the UK?  I don’t think so. The healthcare sector is a bit further away from political influence, unlike access to education or visa applications. I doubt Brexit will affect choice either. From an end user perspective, there will still be good hospitals and doctors in the UK, whatever EU path gets taken.

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