Government urged to help medical tourism


Local healthcare leaders are urging the government to give medical tourism more than a cursory glance.

"Proper handling of medical tourism will bring to Israel much income and foreign currency, improve our status in the world, and especially in the region, contribute to the creation of new jobs, increase the satisfaction of doctors and contribute to their remaining in Israel. All this will raise the level of medicine in Israel," said Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director-general of the Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO).”

Income from medical tourism will help finance hospitals, imaging institutes, labs and research. It would be a win-win situation, but no government, health or finance ministry has done anything significant to promote medical tourism to Israel. With a little investment in medical infrastructure, it could reduce the temptation among the most experienced and promising doctors to leave the country, boost the quality of "hotel services" in hospitals and help the tourist trade.

The professor and his colleague Amitai Rotem, HMO marketing director, outlined the challenges of Israel’s medical tourism industry:

•    Without urgent state initiatives, Israel is leaving the field to other countries. In the meantime, a handful of Israeli hospitals are trying to develop their own medical tourism facilities.

•    Existing infrastructures in most local hospitals can't compare with those now in the East. For Israeli hospitals to compete, the level of hotel services must be improved and the number of beds increased.

•    Current marketing and administrative systems, not built for the speedy responses needed for competition, must be upgraded. Prices are not flexible enough, and the quality of service offered today in most cases is suited to local needs rather than meeting international tourist standards.

The government, Mor-Yosef and Rotem urge, must take an active role in promoting the field.

Of the 16,000 foreign patients who came for treatment in 2006, public hospitals like Jerusalem's Hadassah University Medical Centers cared for 7,000, and private hospitals for 3,500, with only a few going to government and health fund-owned facilities. Estimated annual revenue for these services total US$40 million.

Mor-Yosef and Rotem said that major treatments such as surgery, organ transplants, dental care and plastic surgery are sought by medical tourists.

Unlike ecotourism, in which the traveller chooses a destination and only then selects the elements of the vacation, Rotem noted that medical tourism begins with a defined medical need. To this is matched an appropriate destination in terms of medical specialisation, cost, service (such as a suitable language and culture) and in certain cases cultural availability (such as a Saudi Arabian tourist who wants to visit Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock). From a desire to minimise cost and waiting time, the modern patient turns into a tourist, and tourism experts and health industry people supply the "merchandise."

Mor-Yosef said while foreign tourists receive the same level of treatment as Israeli patients, profitability from foreigners is much greater. The Health Ministry's rates for tourists are much higher than those for Israelis, and discounts for tourists are lower. Payment is made in advance, unlike the local market that pays with credit. He also stresses the need to upgrade facilities to meet the expectations of medical tourists by improving "hotel services" in hospitals.

 The strong message from the pair is that government ministries need to work together; The Health Ministry must set a supportive policy, both in setting prices and allocating additional beds to hospitals that cater to medical tourists. The Interior Ministry needs to establish speedy and friendly processes for providing tourist visas to patients. The Tourism and Foreign ministries must market the State of Israel as a destination for medical tourism. The Finance Ministry has to allocate funds, both for marketing and for improving the infrastructure that will be needed as medical tourism increases.



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