IMTJ has seen several approaches to ‘COVID-safe’ certification appearing in recent months, all of which aim to build confidence with prospective patients about a destination or individual treatment centre. But while it may influence hospital and clinic selection for some patients who have little choice but to travel abroad for treatment, certification isn’t a magic cure.
“Is it safe?” is the first question posed by patients considering travelling to a hospital in a foreign country for any form of treatment. Some countries have clearly enhanced their global reputation in terms of the quality of their healthcare – South Korea being the standout example. A safe environment, whether in a country as a whole or in an individual hospital or clinic, will be front of mind when patients are comparing destinations or providers, given the concerns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The medical travel sector attracts a lot of interest and a great deal of enquiries but, sadly, much of that interest and many of those enquiries don’t turn into business. The reason? Because people are uncertain; they are not convinced that medical travel is a safe or sensible option. And COVID-19 is going to mean that patients are even more concerned about medical travel.
So, can certification cure those patient concerns? Some destinations, providers and certification services have moved rapidly to provide confidence to prospective patients that a destination or individual treatment centre is “COVID safe”. Several approaches to certification have appeared in recent months.
Temos, the German healthcare accreditation provider, has launched a “Certificate of Compliance: COVID-19 Safe” to ensure that the necessary standards are in place in hospitals and clinics in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Certificate of Compliance represents best international clinical practices as well as the results of scientific studies and guidelines published by WHO, CDC, ISQua and other reputable sources. Providers complete an online self-assessment process which is then reviewed by Temos assessors. The cost of certification ranges from around €2,500 to €5,000 (US$2,400-6,000), with a review after 12 months. So far, 16 healthcare facilities are adopting the certification, in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Hungary, Greece and Turkey.
The US-based Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) Programme has launched “COVID-19 Guidelines for Medical Travel Programmes” to assist organisations in the medical tourism industry seeking to mitigate the risk of infection for travelling patients and their companions. For a hospital, the certification costs US$1,950, plus an annual renewal fee of US$300. The certification includes a two-hour online training course on the guidelines, available to all employees of a hospital. The average timeframe can be as short as two weeks. So far, one hospital has completed the certification.
Although not specifically related to medical travel, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has developed global Safe Travels protocols for use by the travel and tourism sector as best practice guidelines to help restart and speed up the recovery of this sector in the wake of COVID-19. They aim to provide consistency to destination authorities as well as guidance to travel providers, operators, and travellers, about the new approach to health and hygiene in the post COVID-19 world. The Safe Travels Stamp is based on self-assessment and it is not a certification. Countries, destination authorities and companies using the stamp have confirmed that they have implemented and will ensure ongoing compliance with the Safe Travels protocols and ICAO ‘Takeoff’ guidelines. There is no charge for the Stamp.
Some major medical travel destinations have launched their own national initiatives to reassure international patients that their destination is safe for medical travellers.
International patients must go through the Health Ministry and register with the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC). They must also take a screening test at home or on arrival. International patients are allowed to bring one companion who must also undergo a screening test at home or on arrival, and both must download the MySejahtera app.
Health and safety protocols have been issued by the Dubai Health Authority based on international standards and best practices aimed at containing the contagion. Inbound tourists now have to have medical insurance, must take a PCR test and complete a health declaration.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), has launched a campaign "Beyond Healthcare, Trust Thailand” to support its medical tourism sector. All foreigners arriving for medical tourism are required to take three Covid-19 tests and enter a 14-day quarantine at a medical institution. Patients are required to stay at the hospital for an additional 14 days and be tested for Covid-19. Patients and carers are required to download and use the government's tracking application throughout their stay.
A website, administered by the Private Hospitals Association (PHA) in partnership with 14 selected hospitals, has been launched, requiring those seeking treatment in Jordan to register on it. Electronic visa and booking and payment services are available through the website, while a hotline is available for assistance.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has launched the ‘Healthy Tourism Certification’ programme and has launched a Safe Tourism Certification Program to certificate coronavirus-free tourism resorts across the country with an ‘internationally recognised’ certification system. Hospitals that accept international patients must obtain an International Health Tourism Authorization Certificate issued by the ministry.
Whether the various approaches to convincing patients that a destination, hospital or clinic is “Covid safe” will overcome the concerns of the prospective medical traveller remains to be seen. They may provide an influence on hospital and clinic selection for some patients who have little choice but to travel abroad for treatment. Certification isn’t a magic cure. Whatever protocols and processes are in place, medical travel is less attractive than it was a year ago, and it is going to take a long time to recover.
As Editor in Chief of International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) and a Healthcare Consultant for LaingBuisson, I am one of Europe’s leading experts on private healthcare, medical tourism and cross border healthcare, providing consultancy and research services, and attending and contributing to major conferences across the world on the subject. I am a regular speaker and commentator on medical tourism and the independent healthcare sector.