The media in source countries of medical travellers continue to focus on the “bad news” stories in medical tourism. How can we protect and enhance the reputation of our sector? IMTJ Editor in chief, Keith Pollard, offers some potential solutions.
I think it’s fair to say that medical tourism, in general, doesn’t have a great reputation in many of the countries from where hospitals, clinics and facilitators seek to source their patients. The biggest barrier to medical travel is fear…. of something going wrong.
Patients consider travelling to another country for treatment when they can’t get what they need in their own country. It may be too expensive. The treatment may be unavailable due to waiting lists or a lack of facilities. There may be a lack of suitable expertise within the healthcare system. So patients start to explore the options for treatment abroad. And their first considerations are: “Is it safe?”, “Will something go wrong?”, and “If there’s a problem, when I get home, what do I do?”
Reputation counts for everything in medical travel. A destination, a hospital or a clinic will be ruled out by a patient when they feel that it’s not a safe choice. The media, online or in traditional print, has a major influence on patients’ perception of medical tourism and of destinations.
Bad news stories outweigh the good news
When medical tourism goes wrong, the media are quick to pounce on its shortcomings. Here’s a few recent examples from the UK media.
- The Guardian – ‘Medical tourists’ are travelling the world in search of the elixir of life
In his recent story… “charlatans offering a cure for ageing, and cheap travel and lax laws have made it even easier for them”…. “Medical tourism has produced a steady stream of horror stories since cheaper air travel kickstarted a rise in its popularity”
- Wales Online – Foreign Office issues Turkey warning after 17 British deaths
This article from May 2022 reports on a UK Foreign Office warning over British people travelling to Turkey to receive medical treatments after 17 deaths.
- Daily Mirror – Botched foreign cosmetic surgery leaves thousands of Brit health tourists scarred for life
This special report describes: “the lure of cheap cosmetic surgery abroad is leaving British health tourists scarred for life while landing the NHS with a huge bill to correct the blunders.”
- The Sun – TOOTH BE TOLD I had botched dental treatment in Turkey
This “Real Life Exclusive” features: “An Irish woman who wanted a ‘Hollywood smile’ has been left in “excruciating pain” – after a clinic in Turkey botched her dental treatment.”
These stories in the national media will have been read by many potential medical tourists, their families and friends. The reputational damage to a hospital, clinic , destination or indeed to the medical tourism business in general is immense. Patients who may have been considering travel for treatment will have changed their minds.
So, how do we fix this problem? Or at least reduce the level of “bad news” coverage? Here are some potential solutions:
Restrict entry to the market
One challenge for destinations is deciding on which hospitals and clinics are allowed to treat international patients. In many destinations, there are no restrictions. This means that any hospital or clinic that operates within the domestic market can treat international patients. But international patients require additional care and attention to their specific needs and concerns. Some countries have made positive steps towards regulating their medical tourism sector. Malaysia and South Korea are good examples of this where the healthcare authorities have taken steps to regulating and restricting those hospitals and clinics that are permitted to operate in the medical tourism sector.
Providing services to international patients is not the same as providing services to domestic patients. Supporting the patient throughout the patient journey and accommodating their cultural needs is a major contributor to a positive patient experience. A hospital or clinic may have achieved formal accreditation by its national healthcare body. But a hospital or clinic wishing to serve international patients must consider the benefits of investing in an accreditation or certification service which is specific to the management of international patience. The Germany based, Temos organisation, is one of the best examples of this in the medical tourism sector.
Deal with the unhappy customer
No hospital or clinic that I have encountered provides a 100% outstanding patient experience to every patient that they treat. There will always be some patients, hopefully very few, who are unhappy with the treatment outcome or the level of service provided. If the hospital or clinic fails to deal with these concerns, there is always the risk that the patient will resort to the media to publicise what they see as the failings of the hospital, the clinic, or the destination. So, a prompt and effective response to any patient complaint or unhappiness with treatment must be a given. Never, ignore a patient who complains!
Promote good news
Despite the bad news stories that we see in the media, there are always good news stories to tell and to share about medical tourism. However, the sector has never been that great at spreading the good news about what it does. There are plenty of good news stories out there which we need to get across to potential customers and the public in general. Here is a simple tip . Create a “good news” press release template for your marketing team to use. When you have a patient with a great treatment story to tell, ask them whether they are happy for their story to be told in their local press or media. Ask them for details of their local or regional press or media. Ask them if they’re happy for you to share their good news story and a picture. Then use the template to create a press release to send to that local news or media outlet. Such news outlets are always on the lookout for stories to boost their print and online content. Why not try it!