The advent of the pandemic and its impact on travel has hit businesses involved in travel and tourism more than any other sector. In most parts of the world, medical travel has come to a halt and will be slow to recover. How has this changed the facilitator model?
With the pandemic driven shutdown of medical travel, the sector has experienced a major shake-up. For many involved in the sector, it has meant the abrupt end to their ambitions. Clearly, the impact has varied according to the nature of their business and their dependence on supporting the needs of the international patient and the revenues that derive from their involvement.
For many providers of care – hospitals, clinics and healthcare facilities – the loss of income has been survivable. The contribution that international patients make to a hospital’s revenue is often relatively low. I’ve visited many where medical travel contributes less than 10% of their income.
Even where international patient business contributes a much greater proportion, for example 20% to 25% for some major international hospitals such as those in London, hospital groups have been able to bear the short-term loss, may have furloughed their international staff and/or diverted underutilised resources to other areas of hospital activity. The hardest hit are smaller clinics, often situated on a country’s border where the major proportion of their business has been travelling patients. The dental clinics on the USA–Mexico border and on the Italy–Croatia border will have been faced with the disappearance of their patients overnight due to lockdowns. The owners of dental clinics in Budapest, the dental capital of Europe, will have had to dig deep into their finances to keep their businesses alive during the pandemic.
Medical tourism agencies and facilitators…
If there’s a positive that we can take out of the pandemic, it could be the effect that it has had on the plethora of medical tourism agencies and facilitators that have grown up around the sector.
In most countries, unregulated and uncontrolled, businesses have sprung up every year, offering themselves as ‘facilitators’ of medical travel. Many have little healthcare experience or background. They are often one-person operations that see medical travel as a way to earn a quick buck, have little financial backing and operate from home or a rented office, selling their services over the web, by email and phone.
The pandemic has produced a cull of their numbers. For example:
- In India, the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals & Healthcare Providers (NABH), registers medical travel agencies. Prior to the pandemic, 200 were registered. That figure has now plummeted to 20. It’s not surprising given the reported 70% drop in medical travellers to Hyderabad, and similar falls to other Indian cities.
- In South Korea, the number of medical travel agencies has fallen from 1,500 to around 1,000. Again, this has been prompted by a reported decline of 77% in international patients.
The medical travel facilitator business has always seen a high degree of churn – the rate at which businesses enter and then leave the market. New entrants appear with high expectations of patient throughput and the ease of converting patient interest into patient bookings. The reality proves to be very different; after a couple of years of failing to deliver, the operators pull out and look elsewhere for a business opportunity. The pandemic has meant that many have gone to the wall.
Survival of the fittest… and the most adaptable?
The biggest, the best run, the most flexible and those with deep financial pockets are the ones that have survived the pandemic and may thrive in the longer term. The best will be looking at how their business needs to adapt to the post-pandemic world.
COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon; it will continue to present major barriers to cross border medical travel. Facilitators will need to learn “The new skills needed for international patient management” which will make it “hassle-free” for a patient to travel from one country to another for treatment. They’ll need to review their strategy in terms of both source markets for their patients and the destinations where those patients are treated. Opportunities may arise in countries with more developed health systems, where the pandemic has created pent up demand for treatment.
The research so far suggests that patients will want to be reassured that destinations and healthcare providers are “Covid-safe” and will be less prepared to travel long distances for treatment. Technology and teleconsultation is the new normal and a must have for every facilitator.
“Adapt to survive, and then thrive” will be the way forward for the medical travel facilitator. The age of “business as usual” is over.