Why the growth of medical tourism is being limited by a lack of appropriate hotels

 

Medical tourists don’t need hotels as they only need hospitals.”  It’s an obvious statement to make – these types of travellers don’t need hotels, as they’re going to a hospital or clinic for treatment.

But hang on. Let's reboot and try that again.

Most medical tourists need hotels

Most medical tourists absolutely need hotels to stay in, not only before, but during and after treatment. Anyone travelling a long way will, for example, factor in a day or more travelling plus a hotel stay the night before treatment.   During treatment, with the continuing trend for day-case surgery where fewer people are kept overnight in hospital, there is also a need for somewhere to stay.  And then there may be post-operative checks to ensure all is well, a period of recuperation, and time before it’s safe to fly home.

Frequently, medical tourists have companions travelling with them.  This could be a friend, partner, family or even larger entourage with servants travelling with the patient, who will all need somewhere to stay.

Room availability and costs are often not considered, by either side

Hospitals and clinics in large cities or tourist areas sometimes wrongly assume that there are already plenty of places for a patient and companions to stay - from luxury 7-star hotels, to basic bed and breakfast establishments.

Patients themselves, when comparing prices, may fail to factor in not only all the extras that hospitals charge but also the real cost of hotel stays.  In many tourist locations, prices and availability vary by season, so the date a patient chooses or must accept can significantly increase the price of the trip.

Transport links, hotel location and type need greater profile

Patients rarely think about the distance, suitability and location of hotels relative to the treatment centre they’re visiting.  Just getting between the hospital and hotel is an entire subject in itself, as the transport network may be simple for able people, but not so for those undergoing treatment.

A hotel that may be fun for a tourist in a particular location could be noisy, uncomfortable and bad for the recovery of a medical tourist. Many other types of hotel will also not be any use to medical tourists due to problems with stairs, lack of wheel chair access, unsuitable beds and having nowhere to stay during the day.

Some countries still promote the idea of combining medical treatment with a holiday. But if you are recovering from cosmetic surgery, a sunny beach holiday can cause damage.  Likewise, if you’ve had dental treatment, enjoying the local food and drink may not be high on your list.

The retort from promoters that I get is that the tourist part is mainly for those travelling with a patient.  Excuse me but if I’m paying for a companion to come and help me recuperate in a hotel, and instead they’re off enjoying many sights, my comments on being left out would be unprintable!

Is hotel volume really limiting growth

Few countries promoting medical tourism will admit that a shortage of suitable hotels at the right price, in the right location, at the right time is something that limits growth. Fewer still, Iran being the exception, admit that the total hotel stock simply is not large enough to support many more medical tourists. There well may be enough hotels in the country as a whole, just not in the right towns and cities.

Not many countries have current records on national hotel room numbers, or details of hotel types and where they are. Even defining what a hotel is may be a problem.

STR Global maintains the world’s largest global hotel performance sample, receiving data from more than 59,000 hotels with 8 million hotel rooms.  They report that there are 184,299 hotels comprising 16,966,280 million rooms around the world. That number represents a 17.7% increase in rooms over the last 10 years.  They define a hotel on three exclusionary criteria:

  1. Generates revenue on a nightly per-room basis
  2. Has 10 or more rooms
  3. Is open to the public (excludes those properties requiring membership, affiliation or club status)

So even the STR total excludes many small hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast establishments.

Growing hotel-hospital partnerships

What are medical tourism promoters, governments, hospitals and developers doing to ensure there are the appropriate hotels and other accommodation to enable the promised growth in medical tourism to happen?

The answer is, not a lot. The few exceptions are in new medical cities and healthcare hubs, but even here, hotel developers know that they have a captive market so can charge high prices. There are literally a miniscule number of enterprising hospitals, mainly in the US and Middle East, that offer or have partnerships with local hotels.

However, in the US, building on the trend for medical facilities to increasingly offer hospitality such as single-patient rooms and furniture that is more traditional than clinical, some hotel operators are getting more active.  These developing ‘hotel-hospital’ partnerships reflect a realisation that domestic US medical tourism is on the rise, and recognise that having accommodation available nearby benefits hospitals, by freeing up beds or simply making it more convenient for patients to obtain follow-up care.

Property developers are now building hotels near, or even in, US hospital and clinic campuses which are attracting domestic and international medical tourists. Other hotel operators have referral partners in neighbouring hospitals, while some hotels will offer special amenities targeted at medical consumers, including on-site laboratories for blood testing, pool lifts, extra electrical outlets or varying table heights to accommodate patients in wheelchairs.

The M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, Texas, for example, offers help to American and international patients on travel and accommodation. The Cleveland Clinic, Ohio has the Rosewood Hotel on its campus; this 152-room hotel is connected to the clinic and open only for hospital patients.  The Baptist Hospital of Miami and Hilton Hotels have partnered on the Hilton Miami/Dadeland hotel on the Baptist Hospital campus, with 184 guest rooms plus 34 rooms tailored to guests who need a longer stay. When open in late 2018 it will have a fitness and wellness centre with heated pool plus a farm-to-table restaurant.  Until then, there is a free shuttle service to the Baptist Hospital from the Hampton Hotel.

Creative accommodation solutions are needed

My conclusion is not going to please those who keep predicting a 20% or 25% annual growth in medical tourism. There are simply not enough hotels to go round, partly because those pesky tourists nab most of the rooms and partly because they are in the wrong place for medical tourists.

You cannot build new hotels overnight, particularly in the increasing number of countries and cities who are actually seeking to limit tourism. So hospitals and medical tourism promotional bodies need to find a fix to their accommodation problems, or accept that medical tourism may be limited.

With global tourism increasing every year, some countries and cities may even find medical tourist numbers decreasing as hotels get full up with tourists.

And finally, to rub salt into the wound, health and wellness tourism is growing, and will continue to grow, much faster than medical tourism.  A key factor in its success is that accommodation is built into every offer; while for medical tourism it is an after thought, if even considered at all.

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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