Medical Tourism Sector Must Become Hospitable

28 november 2017 | Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Treatment of foreign nationals in Russia may become a major non-raw materials export for the country and Russia has all prerequisites to promote medical tourism, believes the Deputy Head of the Analytical Center Tatiana Radchenko. For more see the piece of writing she co-authored for the Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

Tatiana Radchenko
Tatiana Radchenko
Deputy Head

Since 2015 the main competitive advantage of standardized medical treatment in Russia has been its low prices that resulted from the devaluation of the ruble. Plastic surgery, dentistry and eye surgery have been the sectors that seem to have gained the most. It should be said that when it comes to eye surgery Russia already has major competitive advantages stemming from unique technologies and many years of experience with successful surgeries. Federal clinical centers have good infrastructure. This can clearly attract patients from far-abroad countries, including those who seek to buy the cheap medical services that are not covered by their medical insurance.

For the time being we are losing in the medical tourism services market both in terms of sales and in terms of how attractive Russia is in this regard. Russia's market share in the global medical services market is no more than 0.4%. The international Medical Tourism Index Russia places Russia 34th out of 41. The rating not only looks at the competency and reputation of the doctors and the standards of rendering services but also at how patients are treated in general, how friendly the medical staff are.

According to the Russian Healthcare Ministry, in 2016, 66,400 foreign nationals were treated at federal-level facilities, with three-fourths of them being treated as out-patients. Over 70% of foreign nationals getting medical services in Russia are citizens of CIS countries . In 2015, Russia made RUB 7–10 billion from medical tourists and in 2016 this amount grew to RUB 10–15 billion, however, these figures do not include medical services provided by private companies. The range of services that foreign nationals are interested in is quite broad: dentistry (primarily prosthetics and implants), urology, gynecology (mostly in vitro fertilization), plastic surgery, orthopedics, trauma treatment, cardiovascular surgery, ophthalmology. However, the country does not have many medical facilities in the region that are ready to treat foreign nationals. As a result some 90% of all foreign patients end up going to Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

So what needs to be done to change the situation? First of all the medical services sector has to become more friendly. There is currently an acute shortage of medical staff who can speak foreign languages. The level of service is a far cry from what foreigners are used to in their home countries. Another important problem is the obsolete resorts. Few foreigners would be willing to spend money in resorts built in the Soviet era, which do not look anything like the modern facilities they are used to seeing in Eastern and Western Europe. Another factor may appear paradoxical: medical organizations are not really interested in getting more foreign patients.

When asked why that is the case many reply that we first need to sort out our domestic healthcare problems before we try to attract foreign patients. One way to interpret this response is that nobody has set this goal yet.

A third problem is how difficult it is to get a Russian visa. Russia does not have such type of visas as medical treatment visas so people cannot have their visa procedures fast-tracked by providing medical documents, neither is there an option for a quick and easy extension of one's stay depending on the progress of the treatment. Patients have to enter the country with tourist visas and deal with all the restrictions that come from that. A number of countries that have strategies for promoting the export of medical services (for example Germany and Malaysia) have introduced special visas for medical treatment that offer extended stay periods of up to 6 months. Malaysia even has a special simplified procedure for entering the country in emergencies with visas being issued for the patients afterwards.

In addition, foreign nationals have nowhere they can learn about what medical services Russia can offer them. There is practically zero information abroad about Russian medical services. Today, at the state level, there is no marketing strategy for attracting foreign patients.

Meanwhile, competition for affluent patients is gathering momentum all over the world. Costa-Rica, India and Malaysia are implementing programs to promote their medical services under special national brands. The neighboring Belarus has been quite successful in promoting medical tourism. Thus, they've been able to implement one of the most successful marketing strategies to promote their resorts in the post-Soviet space. Between 2010 and 2016 the exports of the country's medical services grew from USD 9 million to USD 35 million.

In order to promote exports of medical services Belarus has introduced a system of incentives for medical staff, hired professional translators, developed special waiting lists for foreign patients to ensure they get all the services they need from the time they get admitted to the hospital until the time they get released or transferred to another facility. Belarus has been pursuing an active marketing and advertising campaign, telling prospective customers about what their healthcare system can offer them. Russia today is just setting out on this path and we could adopt the same strategy that is already being used to promote exports of educational services, meaning that we could select some "anchor" medical facilities and use them to trial the mechanisms for turning them into international brands.

Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Picture from open sources