Bringing health care to the international patient

Access to medical expertise, better quality of care and a better outcome are one of the main drivers of medical travel. But with advances in telemedicine and telehealth and the global expansion of leading healthcare brands, medical travel may no longer be the preferred option for patients in some source markets.

There are many reasons why patients travel for healthcare – better care, better outcomes, lower cost, lack of locally available treatments, poor facilities and technology in the country of origin, legal restrictions on treatment (eg. example IVF), etc. In many countries where health systems are underdeveloped or where there is a perceived lack of expertise in an area of ​​treatment, patients may decide that a better option is to travel abroad for treatment. , regardless of the relative cost. This is especially true when patients are faced with complex illnesses such as cancer and heart disease or when they simply do not trust the skills of their local hospitals and surgeons.

Even in what are considered advanced healthcare economies like the Gulf region, those who can afford it or whose government pays for it or who think they can get better outcomes elsewhere will opt for medical travel. But times are changing. Countries that have for many years been considered a rich source of international patients, often funded by their government or employer, are becoming an attractive target for hospital investment rather than a source of revenue for an international hospital.

So how will the trend of bringing healthcare to the patient rather than bringing the patient to healthcare impact medical travel?

It is clear that the growth of telehealth and telemedicine caused by the pandemic is already changing the way health care is delivered “remotely”. Where local medical expertise is lacking, borders are no longer an obstacle to delivering an expert diagnosis. International healthcare brands such as Mayo, Cleveland and HCA have incorporated teleconsultation and telediagnosis into their international patient offering. A dedicated telemedicine/teleconsultation/telediagnosis service is now a “must have” for any hospital company that takes international patient service seriously. This requires investment in technology and in the communication skills of clinicians who may be more comfortable with the bedside or consulting room approach to patient assessment and consultation.

These trends and advances mean that international patients have access to greater expertise, more informed diagnosis and better outcomes. However, to achieve the result, expertise is needed at the point of treatment, assuming some form of human intervention is required. It means bringing the doctor, the technology and the standard of treatment and care to the patient.

The first approach to this challenge was to fly in expert clinicians to local hospitals to undertake consultations and surgeries. Some hospitals aimed to recruit higher-level physicians and surgeons from elsewhere into their local workforce, but this often proved unattractive to those at the top of their profession who wanted to retain the connection to their hospital research interests. and teaching in their home county. A model that is now becoming more widespread involves exporting a healthcare provider’s management approach, treatment protocols and standards to countries where patients seek and are willing to pay for a higher level of expertise. .

One of the first examples is the creation of Moorfields Eye Hospital, Dubai, established in 2007, which integrated teaching and research as well as consultant-led clinical care. Following operational protocols and accessing clinical expertise from its University Hospital in London, the UAE-based facility has served more than 150,000 patients, from the UAE and other countries. The success of the model led to its expansion with the opening of Moorfields Abu Dhabi in 2016 and an affiliation with Al Jalila Children’s Specialized Hospital (AJCSH) also in Dubai to provide pediatric ophthalmology.

Around the world, international hospital brands are expanding their footprint, bringing their clinical expertise to the patient. Cleveland Clinic is well known for its expansion into Abu Dhabi and most recently with the opening of its London Hospital. Mayo Clinic has established branches in Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Shanghai and London and created the Mayo Clinic Care Network, with over 40 members across the United States and in China, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea , Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

China is proving to be a hot spot for international hospital companies. King’s College Hospital London is to set up the first self-contained liver center in the Boao Lecheng International Medical Tourism Pilot Area in Hainan, China. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has invested in the development of the Chengdu Wanda-UPMC International Hospital and has four other projects underway.

So, in the long run, we might see less expertise-driven medical travel and better outcomes. Bringing healthcare to the patient rather than the patient to healthcare can provide better returns for the mainstream healthcare providers currently serving international patients.

Norma A. Roth