The 20/50 theory in Medical Travel


Ilan Geva

President, Ilan Geva & Friends and global branding expert, author, speaker

Ever since I got involved in the field of medical travel (or medical tourism as some call it) I noticed changes, constant changes. Of course the science of medicine has made some wonderful leaps forward, so did administrative systems in healthcare, and technology. Naturally, all this is not happening on equal terms and footing globally. Some countries are doing better than others, simply because they belong to what we call the group of developed markets, while the underdeveloped markets are still lagging.

Beyond the issue of belonging to “developed” or “undeveloped” groups, there are many other components for making medical travel a successful venture for any nation. The most obvious one to me is competition.

We now live in a world that has 196 countries, according to Google…  At least 50% of those countries are competing in the medical travel market, offering anything from health check-ups to open heart surgeries, and throwing in the middle cosmetic and dental treatments. And that list does not include wellness, thermal or other well being and leisure related activities.

Just like any other business, (and let’s not forget: medical travel is business) the competition is a major component to consider. I am stunned to visit country after country, discussing many issues regarding the promotion of health travel markets, only to realize that the competition has not been studied enough. From governments, to associations, to cities and their councils, all are happy to throw their hat into the ring and try: Are WE the next destination to make money from this amazing gravy train.

Reality check please.

Medical travel has not been an amazing gravy train for all. Yes, some destinations are getting better at the game, and their overall inbound patient numbers are increasing. Still, that doesn’t mean that the net income per patient is impressive. Are they all studying what the competition is doing in that regard? Very few do. Are they developing methods to improve the cost/income ratio? Very few do.

If one examines the reasons why certain countries present themselves as a medical travel destination, some are bewildering.

For example, almost any country in Europe claims to be in the middle of the continent, with excellent connections to the neighboring countries. This claim has no apparent advantage at all. It puts all European countries in exactly the same position…no differentiation or real advantage to anyone. That claim continues into the travel time to their destination. From any point in Europe, one can fly to the other aide in less that three hours…Again, no advantage to anyone.

Moving east into Asia, the countries competing in this business are all assuming that the proximity to the Chinese market is a sure guarantee for success. However ensuring inbound movement of patients from China or any other destination in the region into their own country is not something to be taken for granted.

Here the competition is fierce among at least 5 leading countries who all vie for the low hanging fruits of approx. 3 billion people, all within few hours of flight.

The African market is being considered by almost all as a source for medical patients, since the overall medical infrastructure in the continent is not on par with others. But again, not enough is done by the competing countries from the GCC, Middle East, Asia and Europe to differentiate themselves, and become relevant and compelling to African residents.

Deloitte Research is pointing to patient global movements as follows:

· Mexico is enjoying visitors from the US and Canada seeking checkups and dental treatments.

· South America is seeing patients from the US and Canada seeking tummy tucks, breast augmentation, facelifts and rhinoplasty

· European destinations are seeing movement from one country to another especially in major dental treatments, full mouth restorations and implants.

· India provides solutions to patients from the US, EU, Canada and China in Cardiac and orthopedic procedures

· Korea is providing Chinese and Japanese patients services in spinal surgeries, cancer screenings, comprehensive health screenings and of course cosmetic surgeries.

· Malaysia is known for offering special burn treatments, fertility and executive check up packages to residents of ASEAN countries and the Middle East

· Thailand offers comprehensive health screenings, and cosmetic surgeries to Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and Middle Eastern patients

· Turkey offers ophthalmology and hair transplants to European patients.

And last, but not least, the US market enjoys the luxury of having celebrities, dignitaries, kings and prime ministers, and anyone else who wants to get the best possible treatments at well known medical institutions. The numbers may not be astronomical, but the value and quality of the service is sought after, at any cost.

Of course this cannot be considered a full review of the medical tourism market

However, it actually points to some very valid issues. The business is NOT global, it is by all means regional (at best). Patients are moving in very limited circles in limited zones.

But above it all, please notice the absolutely limited number of countries included in this report. 10 at most… So what happens to all the other countries that claim to be offering medical travel services? They either don’t compete well, or they don’t market themselves well. But they are insignificant in this war on the wallets of willing patients who are seeking medical solutions to their problems.

When you take in account the number of people in the markets from which patients are seeking treatments, you can easily see 2-3 billion people…after all, we have mentioned China, India, Europe, the Americas, ASEAN countries and the Middle East. Will this situation continue? Are we going to see more and more countries and cities getting into the frenzy of building clusters, investing in new hospitals and clinics, luring investors, creating multiple conferences for each city, and signing cooperation agreements among countries separated by thousands of miles? Yes. This situation will probably continue for a while

After all, we are all patriots of our countries. We believe we were born in the best city in the world. We are convinced that the best hospital ever is the one around the corner from us. Why not? Some of us are actually 100% right!

But it doesn’t necessarily looks that way to our global neighbors…certainly not to all of them. To convince them we have to know our competitors, and know how to be different from them, offer different services, at a different level of excellence, and spend money on branding and marketing! On positioning! On brand strategy!

 So here is my 20/50 theory at last.

I predict that the medical travel market will not expand rapidly. I believe it is reaching a certain plateau, and with it the market supply and demand scenario will change

1.T he overall number of nations claiming to offer medical travel services will go down to 50 at best. Those who still argue about it, pay only lip service to it, or do not invest correctly in it, will disappear.

2. Within 5 years from now, there will be only 50 countries in the race, and they will be divided into two main groups.

3.Group one: “The Premier League” will include no more than 20 countries, including already well known destinations mentioned above, with a small addition of few others that are starting to make their mark now. These countries will offer innovative, advanced and exceptional services not only in the medical field but also in all surrounding hospitality services.

4.Group two: “ The secondary league” will include at best 30 other countries that can offer acceptable medical services with acceptable hospitality offerings, but at a lower level, for a lower price.

5.The other 50 countries among the 100 or so who compete in the medical travel race will vanish, and will be doing better to focus on their domestic population.