What can Google tell us about medical tourism?

Who knows what's going on in healthcare? Who knows what conditions and disorders are causing people problems? Who knows what's happening in medical tourism?


Google is a treasure chest of information about how people are behaving and what issues are concerning them. Google logs the online activity and search behaviour of hundreds of millions of users. It knows what you and I do on the web everyday. It knows where we are, most of the time. And from the data that Google collects, it can draw conclusions. And so can you.

A recent example of this in the healthcare sector is Google Flu Trends . Google has realised that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity in a US state up to two weeks faster than the federal centres for disease control and prevention.

Outside of healthcare, a UK web intelligence company was able to predict the winner of a TV talent show, based on the online activities of people who were watching the show and researching the contestants online.
So what does Google know about medical tourism....? Probably quite a lot more than most people in the business.

Let's take a simple example. Suppose I want to know which are the most popular countries for cosmetic surgery for UK patients who travel for treatment.

I can analyse the search activity of UK internet users by looking at the relative number of searches for cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery which also incorporate location or country names.

I then combine all of this data to create a search volume of country related cosmetic surgery related phrases. For each country, I can then calculate a share of the total volume of searches. And we get the table on the right.

Interesting stuff.... Now, it doesn't tell me which countries people are actually going to (in the same way that Google Flu Trends doesn't actually tell you that people have flu), but I'm willing to bet that it's not a bad indicator. And it's probably a far better indicator than the top of the head data that many "experts" toss around.

So, if your job is about marketing medical tourism, you need to consult the new medical tourism guru - Google Inc.

Medical tourism: Survival of the fittest?

No industry is immune from global recession, and that has to be the case for the growing medical tourism industry. In past recersions, businesses in the healthcare sector have perhaps suffered less than others; in a recession, people still get ill, and it's often difficult to delay expenditure on healthcare. But there are some indicators that medical tourism is begining to feel the pinch.

According to a recent article in BusinessWeek, "Medical Tourism: Surviving the Global Recession", the Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, one of the world's leading centres of medical tourism is seeing a fall in overseas patient revenues. Similarly, the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia is reducing its forecast of overseas patient revenues, and some Indian medical tourism providers are reporting that "medical tourism is on the wane". The situation is further complicated in India and Thailand by the recent terrorist incidents and political protests.

If we think back to 9/ll and the subsequent Iraq involvement, these events had a major impact on travel related businesses and medical tourism flows from the Arab States to the Western World. Countries such as the UK saw a significant drop in inbound medical tourism, and Arabic patients transferred their loyalty to countries such as Germany.

The counter argument is that in times of economic hardship, people are going to be more inclined to go overseas to avoid high costs in their own country. i.e. they look to buy cheaper, so this is good news for the medical tourism industry.

What's going to happen? Here are my thoughts:
  • The speed and size of this global recession is such that it must have a negative impact on medical tourism; people are going to hang on to their cash, and delay treatment whether that is treatment within their own country or overseas.
  • It doesn't necessarily mean that less people are going to travel for treatment.It probably means that the growth in number of medical travellers which has been widely predicted is going to be much less than anticipated.
  • Many of the "new-born" medical tourism facilitation companies that have appeared in recent months are going to find it tough going.
  • Those businesses in the sector that have their marketing act together will do best. They'll focus on those marketing activities that deliver results, they'll have a clear idea of what their marketing and service strategy is, and they'll look to generate business and referrals from existing and past patients. See "Five Tips for Marketing in a Recession"

So....it's going to be survival of the fittest in the medical tourism sector. There's plenty of opportunities out there, but there will be fewer to go around. Which means that some businesses are going to find the going tough.