There are many factors that are driving change in the Gulf. And there are some worrying signs for destinations that rely on the stream of income from high value medical treamtent funded by the government or state employers.
One of IMTJ's ambitions this year is to publish our view of how big the medical travel market really is. It's a complex task... gathering all the data (fact and fiction) that's out there, interrogating it, matching the claimed inbound figures for one country with the claimed outbound figures for another and trying to come up with the IMTJ "best guesstimate" of what the real numbers actually are. Much of this information is being compiled in the IMTJ Country Profiles (a subscription only resource but a bargain at less than $50 per month!).
Academics are sceptical of the numbers that they see coming from industry sources. Valorie Crooks, from Simon Fraser University in Canada who contributed to the Academic Conference at the IMTJ Medical Travel 2016 Summit in Madrid says:
“In reality, the true numbers of people travelling abroad for medical are likely far less than what those in the industry report. Unfortunately this has resulted in many clinics finding difficulty in filling their international patient wards."
As we scan and collect information on what is happening in the world's medical tourism markets, what is very apparent is the changing nature of the medical tourism market in the GCC region. (If you really want to know what's going on there... come to the session on the Gulf region at the IMTJ Medical Travel Summit 2017 in April in Croatia.)
There are some worrying signs for those destinations that have relied on a steady stream of income from high value medical treatment that is often funded by the government or state employers.
Several factors are driving this:
I've highlighted a few examples of this in key source markets.
In Kuwait, responsibility for the management of the budget for overseas treatment has been shifted. The Supreme Committee for Overseas Treatment has been closed down; the final decision on sending Kuwaiti patients for treatment abroad is being moved to special committees within Kuwaiti hospitals. The driver is to reduce expenditure on treatment abroad and to "eliminate the financial burden caused by the supreme committee’s decisions, such as granting overseas treatment privilege to undeserving citizens."
It follows a continuing trend of a reduction in the number of patients sent for overseas treatment. It is reported that the number has been reduced by 50% in recent years. The number of patients sent to London for treatment reduced from 1,100 in 2013 to 500 in 2014.
Saudi Arabia is now running a $100 billion budget deficit which the government aims to close. So, a five year plan is being developed which aims to encourage Saudi medical tourists to stay at home for their treatment and to attract medical tourists from other Islamic countries to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has endorsed a proposal that combines religious and medical tourism to promote Saudi health services to the world’s 1.6 million Muslims who may seek spiritual solace during a health crisis.
In 2015, the Bahrain government spent $66 million on foreign care for its citizen, sending around 1,500 citizens overseas for treatment. The government covers the cost of the treatment as well as flights, hotel accommodation and spending money. More recently the Health Minister has stated that Bahrain is intending to reduce the number of citizens sent for treatment abroad, by providing more medical services within the Kingdom. Bahrain is set to fly medical experts in to the country as part of a cost-saving measure to be implemented in 2016. Doctors from India, Singapore, Thailand, Germany, the UK, Belgium and the US have agreed to take part in the new scheme.
And.... Bahrain has identified medical and health tourism as an area it wants to expand, although it is not clear on how it will do this. The government is targeting Russian investors to develop healthcare facilities for medical tourists. With the low price of oil forcing the government of Bahrain to curtail spending and put some long-term projects on hold, it is looking for new income streams.
The picture in the Gulf is one of declining demand from government funded medical tourism and an ambition to increase the supply of services for inbound medical tourists. A fall in demand and an increase in supply can only mean one thing.... increased competition in an already crowded market and further pressure on price in the competing destinations.
I am CEO of Intuition Communication Ltd, a web publishing business in the healthcare sector. Our sites include International Medical Travel Journal, Treatment Abroad, the medical tourism portal, DoctorInternet, the Arabic medical tourism portal and Private Healthcare UK, the UK's leading site for private healthcare services. I am a regular speaker and commentator on medical tourism and the independent healthcare sector.