Is T&T ready to roll on medical tourism?

Intelligent market research is a very important tool used to shape destination strategy that will attract visitor-ship, one such dimension is travel trends. Recent studies have shown that the most popular trends in the global travel industry are Medical Tourism, Adventure Tourism, Sport Tourism and Eco Tourism just to name a few. From the recent conference on Medical Tourism in T&T, it seems that this trend is one of the strategies on the agenda of the tourism authorities marketing plan. So what’s the buzz about Medical Tourism? Is T&T ready to roll out its plan as it pertains to the impressive report, “Strengthening the competitiveness of services in T&T” – 2012 Draft National Strategy for Medical Tourism?

The fact is, medical tourism can be a major competitive advantage for the differentiation of our product offering in T&T, as statistics has shown for other destinations such as Cuba, Barbados, Venezuela, Switzerland, USA South Korea and India. These destinations attract visitors because they can provide high quality medical treatment at a lower attractive price; there is confidence of the health services pre and post care;  there is a life enhancing or life changing experience; they are aware of superior medical technology and for some; and the ability to attain medical insurance. Besides the medical aspects the “para” attractions would be the hospitality services, such as hotels and guesthouses, transportation, tour operators, sites and attractions, restaurants and many other receptive components within the tourism offer. Furthermore, there are spin off industries such as Spa tourism (USA, Switzerland); Holistic and Wellness tourism (USA, Maldives, Indonesia, China); and Specialized Medical (USA, India, Venezuela, etc) that are also attractive for visitors and investors.

This burgeoning medical tourism industry became popular for services in areas such as Cosmetic Surgery, Bariatric Surgery, Dentistry, Cardiology/ Cardiac Surgery, Orthopedic Surgery, Cancer Treatment, Fertility/Reproductive System Surgery, Organ/tissue transplant, Eye Surgery and Diagnostics/ Check- ups.

Interestingly some of these services are competently practised in private care institutions in Trinidad, and marketed privately by said institutions to a small percentage of clients both domestically and regionally. For instance, medical clients travel from several regional destinations for specialised eye surgeries, orthopaedic and reproductive surgeries right here in Trinidad. In terms of our domestic population in Trinidad, medical care for clients from very far South or East travel to Port-of-Spain for diagnostics or dialysis testing. Because of these situations the accommodation sector is poised for providing room stay-overs because some patients after being discharged from the hospital may not want to run the risk of travelling which may exacerbate their health situation.

The 2012 draft report proposed developing a campaign/branding exercise for Trinidad and Tobago medical tourism for niche markets, namely the Diaspora. However, we must recognise that the perception of our nationals about T&T medical health care, is a necessary factor to be able to attract the intended niche market. What is obvious and without market intelligence, is that Trinidad and Tobago, like many of the developing nations has a public health care that is inundated with many challenges, and our private health care system that is too costly for the average waged national.

On the other hand, many of our nationals travel abroad for specialized treatment for several reasons: they can afford treatment abroad; there are no specialists or lab that can treat with the particular health situation; or because of trust issues of our domestic health care. Popular clinics in the USA where most nationals travel for medical purposes are Mayo Clinic, Florida Memorial Hospital, Mount Sinai, Baptist Health and John Hopkins.

It is unfortunate that the challenges within our health institution is not an overnight fix, as there are many issues that are like a dormant virus, which requires a special vaccine to rid the disease that is destroying the systems progress. On the upside, is that, significant investment have been by the Government into infrastructural development of several health care institutions, specialised training and equipment. The other spend by government has been to increase the talent pool with specialists/ consultants from China, Cuba, Nigeria, St Lucia and the U.S., to meet the demands of the patient care on the islands. It is a commendable step in the right direction of improving health care services and changing its present state of deterioration to change public image perception.

This investment is for T&T nationals to be able to access professional health care at any of these centres being built. It would also mean that care will be provided to every citizen without discrimination against the low income working class. This may be perfect scenario that can be painted for T&T about our health care reform and surely mechanisms ought to be put into place to ensure the public sector never falls into “brain drain” shortages or malpractices which can escalate into various strains of the health care system virus.

It is my perspective having read the 2012 draft report, for which the market research is now irrelevant today, should consider treading on this trend very wearily, as risks involved in medical tourism can have long term consequences that can affect the entire marketing campaign for the destination.  And if the intention is to move forward with the proposed trend, then the tourism authorities should start lobbying with stakeholders for international accreditation and legislative regulations of patient care schemes before any plan of misleading advertisements.

The legislative framework should also look at ensuring that taxpayers are not paying for foreign visitors to attain free services within the public institutions; that the public sector is also certified so as not to be ousted from the medical campaign because of inferior care; that practitioners are bona fide in both public and private care; and that insurance frameworks are set up for institutions and practitioners.  What is also significantly important for authorities to consider, especially in this age of terrorism, is that all best practises should be considered for the public and private health institutions to safeguard against exposure to unidentifiable bacteria or even bioterrorism.

Globally, destinations involved in medical tourism have implemented several solutions to ensure that the trend is sustained. For instance, South Korea has an institution dedicated 24 hour contact line with tourists about complaints, questions or any information that is for public care facilities. India, another popular destination for medical tourism have partnered with foreign insurance providers to allow visitors to access care at a lower price and with benefits. There are also investment incentive for foreign consultants to set up international firms in countries to compete with the public/private sector whilst providing specialised services to nationals and international visitors.

For T&T to differentiate its tourism product in the medical trend require a clear strategy by a partnered relationship of inter-ministerial Public/Private Health Care stakeholders and that of the Tourism authority to strategize on balancing the quality, efficiency, risk ,sustainability and innovation to effectively promote the islands. A spend on a campaign without a clear plan of action would equate to a loss of the taxpayer dollar and another tourism campaign that is botched! Having said that, what is your view: Is T&T ready to be the trend setter in medical tourism in the Caribbean?