A poll of attendees from over 20 countries listening in to the first IMTJ webinar this week has found that 42% believe that from today, the medical travel sector will continue to be significantly affected by the impact of COVID-19 for another 6-12 months. A further 33% believe it will be affected for more than 12 months.
The medical travel sector faces major challenges with the spread of the Coronavirus across the globe and the resulting impact on healthcare providers and the restrictions on movement.
Chairing the inaugural IMTJ webinar, “Medical travel in a post-COVID world”, Keith Pollard, Editor in Chief of IMTJ, described how in the UK, there is significant pent up demand for elective surgery, with private and NHS hospitals facing a back log of treatment. Private providers, particularly in London, had previously relied on 20-25% of their revenue coming from international patients. This income has been significantly reduced, and it is likely to take a long time to reduce the NHS and private waiting lists for care. Attracting medical travellers back to the UK may also be a challenge due to the high death rate (estimated at over 50,000, many occurring in the care sector) and poor perceptions of how the government as managed the pandemic.
This is in stark contrast to how South Korea has tackled COVID-19, which has just over 13,000 confirmed cases and 284 attributable deaths recorded to date. Professor Jin Ki Nam, from Yonsei University stressed the importance of collaboration between all the key players, including the public, face mask manufacturers, the government, the Centre for Disease Control, healthcare providers and bio companies. He also believes that societal norms including, for example, wearing face masks and a collectivist culture that puts the importance of public safety above individual privacy, were vital to containing the pandemic. The challenge now for South Korea is to manage increasing public fatigue with remaining vigilant, to reduce the impact of a second wave, and promoting the sustainability of the country’s healthcare system.
Malaysia had a similarly aggressive approach to testing and containing the pandemic, said Sherene Azli, CEO of Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC). With just under 9,000 confirmed cases to date, and a 97.7% recovery rate, Malaysia is also one of the highest COVID-testing countries in the ASEAN. Medical tourism was the first tourism sector to be reopened, announced by the government on the 19 June. With a variety of standard operating procedures (SOPs) approved by the National Security Council on 24 June, Malaysia opened to medical travellers (subject to these SOPs) from the 1 July. There have been over 150 enquiries from international patients to date.
The impact of reduced medical travel to Malaysia has been significant however, and MHTC has revised its inbound medical travel revenue target for 2020 from RM2bn (US$500m) from private hospitals, to just RM500m (US$120m). By 2022, Azli thinks the sector will be back to 2017 revenue levels. In the last few months, MHTC has pursued an aggressive PR and branding campaign, boosting social media activity, and supporting their member hospitals and agents in other countries, to position Malaysia as ‘top of mind’ when patients decide to travel again. They see 2021 as a ‘post COVID recovery phase’, and have pushed back their major Malaysia Year of Healthcare Travel campaign from this year to 2022.
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