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Medical tourism in good health

Apart from being widely renowned for its unique thermal and medical baths and spas, Budapest is also proud to be on the list of the most significant medical tourism centers of the world.  Krisztián Kummer

Various healthcare services attract tens of thousands of health tourists to Budapest each year, their number constantly increasing. Dental procedures are by far the most common forms of treatment that tourists travelling to Budapest require; however, there is a growing demand for other health-related services such as elective cosmetic surgery or eyesight correction.
The health tourism sector is still in its developing period, but in highly developed countries, where treatment costs are getting higher and higher and waiting lists are full weeks or even months in advance, news of the possibility to get treatments abroad is spreading far and wide. While there are always some risks involved in taking medical treatment, whether at home or in a foreign country, most clinics abroad follow strict health guidelines and rules, very often more recognized than clinics in the US or the UK. A lot of patients have legal and subsequent treatment issues related to possible complications, but some procedures, such as dental treatment, are guaranteed; so it may well be financially worthwhile to return.
"The outlook is definitely positive, but it largely depends on us, on what steps we can introduce to increase the number of patients. How can we, the service providers and the government together, outline the brand image of Hungary and put the country on the world map as a serious and reliable medical tourist destination," said Erika Ladányi, owner and director of accredited medical tourism facilitator BeautyHungary.
Health tourism is indeed a growing industry. According to Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, 1.6 million people are expected to head overseas for healthcare in 2012 from the United States alone. This number may rise by 20% every year, as the majority of Americans gave a C or worse when rating medical treatment in their country.
However, sitting in the lobby of the clinic and waiting for patients to come is not enough to prosper. To gain an advantage over competing countries, more and more aggressive marketing strategies are required – much more than a website in English. On the one hand, facilitators are commonly used to lure patients. Most clinics cannot afford the required human resources (neither in numbers nor in knowledge and experience) to successfully gather patients from abroad. However, working closely with facilitators could increase customer satisfaction and cost-effectiveness as well.
On the other hand, patients' own opinion is very important from the arrival through the reception and the treatment process to the subsequent relationship. "A good wine does not need advertisement," as Hungarians say, and the best advertising is by word of mouth by patients returning home.
And thirdly, on a larger scale, Hungary has to be present very clearly in the international healthcare industry through conferences, exhibitions etc. The government, the clinics, and related agencies must act together to introduce and promote Hungary before other countries with less capabilities but better marketing presence pass us by, Ladányi says.
Answering the growing demand to link plastic surgery treatments with real touristic features, more and more clinics are opening at or near tourist destinations outside Budapest. In the small town of Hévíz, famous for its thermal lake, Zena Beauty & the Med Center opened a plastic surgery clinic at the end of late last year. There are two kinds of visitors in the clinic, said medical facility manager Mária Boronyák. There are those who at first only want to gather information on medical possibilities and proceed with preliminary investigations while enjoying the nearby thermal bath, and those who do not waste their time and ask for immediate treatment. While in most cases Zena is performing single-day surgeries, it has a number of rooms to meet the requirements of those who stay for a longer period, Boronyák said. Four out of 10 patients arrive from abroad; 35% of them from Germany, 30% from Austria and, to some surprise, 30% come from Russia and Ukraine.
According to the statistics of BeautyHungary, about 30% of all plastic surgery clients arrive from abroad, mainly from the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Italy, and other Western European countries. They stay in Hungary for 1 to 3 weeks on average and spend approximately €4,000-5,000. These visitors can save 40-80% on medical expenses, depending on the type of surgery ordered, the accommodation and spending habits of the patient, and the country of origin. However, the bankruptcy of Hungarian airlines Malév can hold back patients from visiting Hungary, worsening the balances of medical clinics. Access to Hungary is narrower due to the cancellation of many direct flights, and airline ticket prices have increased too. These phenomena mean less potential tourists – and less medical tourists among them, Ladányi says.