Game plan needed for health tourism

  • 2011-02-23
  • From wire reports

TALLINN - Analyzing alternate development strategies for health care tourism, Estonia has concluded that it needs a much better understanding of what consumers in target countries want, reports news agency LETA. The Estonian Development Fund commissioned the report ‘Healthcare Services 2018,’ as a part of a wider project on developing Estonia’s service economy. This report analyzes opportunities for Estonia’s export of health and wellness services over the next decade, outlines choices for a strategy, and makes recommendations for action.

The report first asked whether or not Estonia has the potential for becoming a health and medical tourism destination. The answer was that it could be, as there will be a global growth in healthcare services, as Estonia’s healthcare system and services are good, and the country has the intention of developing a knowledge-intensive, predominantly service-based export-oriented economy.

The report agreed that the country has potential. But it reported varying opinions on the size and growth of health and medical tourism globally, and in Europe, and the actual potential for Estonia. Part of the problem is defining and measuring the target market for cross-border health care by individual country, and differentiating between real information and hype.
Although the report looked at other health care service and product export opportunities, it concluded that there is real potential in health tourism. It concluded that the drivers for individual healthcare tourism in Europe are one or a combination of factors - a search for better service quality, lower prices and shorter queues. It said that this may also apply in the longer run to national health systems and insurers, but while individual health tourism can be proved to exist, it is more of a future possibility for state or insurer driven health tourism, than current fact.

A survey conducted in the course of the report says that two out of three managers of Estonian healthcare institutions and businesses expect that European consumers will increasingly seek healthcare in other EU states, and that younger and more educated people are most likely to use services outside their home country.

The Estonian healthcare system provides a good base for health tourism. It has state-of-the-art technology, high-quality expertise and price advantages over many EU countries; 30 percent of all health providers in the country already deal with international patients and there are a few health businesses in Estonia where most of the business is from other countries.
The report attempted and failed to find any reliable figures or estimates on either the value of, or numbers of, foreign patients treated in Estonia, let alone any figures for health tourism. The managers surveyed believe that exports of healthcare services would increase in the near future, although the majority of them do not make any active effort to achieve this growth. In the short term, the shortage of staff and, in some cases, facilities that do not meet the standards, are inhibiting factors.

The report concludes that even those working in Estonian healthcare say that marketing of services to foreigners is poor. There is a desperate need for attractive, foreigner-oriented marketing and sales that will bring customers into Estonia. This problem goes wider than for health care, as it also applies to tourism. Estonia has an image problem as few in Europe know much about the country or what it has to offer, so until this image problem is solved, it is hard to market healthcare. Health tourism appears to be a logical way to continue developing tourism, because it would be much easier to offer value-added healthcare services to people who have already been to Estonia as tourists.

After analyzing the report, the Estonian Development Fund suggests that a possible model for Estonia to systematically develop health tourism is to set up a public-private partnership agency to develop cooperation between the different players and devise ways of marketing what is on offer. Experts from the fund say that in developing health tourism, Estonia can choose between different strategies, or even mix them. The fastest growth could be achieved by taking full advantage of the synergy of tourism, wellness and health services. The report pointed to health-related challenges of neighboring EU countries - alcoholism, obesity, elderly-related care. The experts suggest offering innovative service packages for these. All strategy choices will require a willingness to make targeted and long-term investments in Estonian medical services and related fields.

When selecting target markets, the report says that there are no countries where Estonia can export its healthcare services with little effort and fast profit. International experience shows that usually it is more likely to be successful in neighboring countries and that for Estonia, Finland may be the best bet as it is easier to enter than other markets, but its size is not so large when compared to Sweden or Norway, both of which may have higher barriers to entry. Northwest Russia, where poor healthcare outcomes leave great problems for the local population, has growing potential. So have Latvia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, but in these countries there are different negative factors to consider: limited market and purchasing power in Latvia; and in Germany and UK, Estonia is relatively unknown and the distances are greater.

The report concludes that for Estonia, it is possible to develop health tourism, but only if it makes serious efforts on developing a clear strategy focus, cooperation between different parties and with a willingness to make longer-term commitments. And before any of that can happen, a public-private health tourism promotional body must be set up.