The slumbering giant of medical travel?

Where do you think the international patients' centre shown above is? Singapore? Thailand? Malaysia? India? Korea?

Read on to find out...

This week’s International Medical Travel Journal covers a recent announcement by the UK Department of Health (See: Liberated UK hospitals to attract medical tourists) that it plans to remove the cap on the proportion of income that NHS hospitals can earn from private surgery. NHS hospitals are allowed to treat private patients (both domestic and international patients) in addition to their primary responsibility for serving the needs of the UK public.

Many NHS hospitals have private patient wards or dedicated units which benefit from their location close to the extensive clinical resources and medical technology which are available with an NHS general or teaching hospital. These are well supported by private patients but these NHS units have been restricted in terms of their revenue potential; across the UK, NHS hospitals were not allowed to generate more than 2% of their income from private paying patients. Some individual hospitals were allowed to generate a much greater proportion but were still limited in their revenue earning potential.

At medical tourism conferences around the world, the UK gets barely a mention. Yet it ranks in the top ten destination countries in terms of medical tourist numbers and probably in the top five in terms of revenue generated (Source: Team Tourism Consulting 2010). London continues to attract high value medical travellers seeking expertise and quality rather than the lowest prices. The average treatment cost for these patients is around £20,000, and for individual patients it can be much more. London also benefits significantly from the related expenditure of these medical travellers e.g. accommodation for friends and family during these extended patient stays.

Private patient facilities at leading London teaching hospitals such as Moorfields Eye Hospital, Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, Royal Brompton & Harefield Hospitals, Kings College Hospital, Royal Marsden Hospital, and Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital have always been attractive to international patients and they compete with other international centres of excellence in countries such as the USA and Germany . Indeed, these NHS private patient facilities earn more from international private patients (medical tourists) than they do from UK private patients.

The Harris International Patient Centre at Great Ormond Street (pictured above) is a good example. The Centre has 130 staff, working with over 170 clinicians in Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. It’s bigger than most international patient departments serving “medical tourists” that you would find anywhere in the world. And it’s very busy. But, until now Great Ormond Street and similar NHS run international patient facilities have been limited by the private patient income cap.

That is about to change... London “the slumbering giant of medical travel” may wake up to some of the newly emerging opportunities presented by the international patient market:
  • The London hospitals mentioned above have a long and impressive track record in attracting international patients.

  • They were involved in medical tourism long before the term was invented.

  • And they are able to provide quality and prices that will be attractive to many emerging source markets for medical travel. For example, if US derived medical tourism does eventually take off, and American patients can make significant savings by travelling to London for major surgery (not far short of those available in Singapore or Thailand), would London be an attractive option? Same language (...almost), same culture (...almost).

This American who travelled to Wales for surgery may be the start of a growing trend....