6 Key Considerations When Targeting U.S. Patients for Medical Tourism

Not getting enough traction with your marketing and advertising efforts towards American patients? Let's talk about it.

Medical, dental and wellness tourism providers targeting individuals with specific health conditions may underestimate the challenges attracting North American patients from the USA. The stakes are higher than ever before because of many U.S. healthcare reform disease-specific and chronic care management initiatives underway.  

When someone has a critical illness or is in a lot of pain and discomfort, these patients and their loved ones often have urgent needs. Needs that won't support an argument of traveling 30+ hours to a faraway destination by air in one direction. Needs that, in the patients' mind, need to be treated right now, not three weeks from now after all the medical travel logistics and information exchange are completed. If financial considerations are paramount, air travel prices are often lowest when purchasing at least 54 days in advance of departure. Some patients are potentially seeking life-saving information online, and reading websites that may encourage them to click, but often they don't buy.

Our marketing campaigns aren't producing results

That's one complaint I receive from many medical tourism sellers outside the USA. They say they get "clicks" but not closed sales. Trying to tell most of them that their content marketing strategy is flawed and needs a serious overhaul is as much fun as telling them that they have broccoli in their teeth.  When someone asks me to critique their website and content to guide them how to improve to meet their goals, I give it to them straight. They deserve a consulting expert who tells them what they need to know.  You'd be surprised how many push back with arguments that were the very crux of the flawed strategy. Many are even non-sequitur and most arguments are not supported with any data, research or experience - just something they read online or deduced - albeit incorrectly.

Many pay some medical tourism website of a pay per click basis rather than pay for closed sales. They do this for a very short time, learn their lesson, lick their wounds, pay the bill and quit the contract without renewing.  They then go looking for a facilitator or referral agency who will send them referrals in exchange for the promise of a commission payment of as much as 20-30% of the health tourism destination package. That's problematic because in the USA, accepting or paying kickbacks for patient referrals is against several laws.  In Canada too, so that covers most of North America. If they want patient referrals from the USA and Canada, they must earn them - but most don't know how. The rest lack confidence that they can or don't want to invest the effort to do it themselves.

Patients want more information than most medical and dental tourism sellers provide. U.S. patients are taught to engage with healthcare providers; to ask questions. Many foreign physicians view this as "confrontational" or "insolent".  This is a cultural difference. It isn't personal. But the foreign physicians who are used to being addressed with deference don't realize this. I think it is also why they are taken aback by my directness when I tell them my observations and interpretations of their website, content and why they are failing to connect with American patients or gain traction to grow their medical or dental tourism service.


1. Accurate, specialized content that creates trust

Patients being targeted who suffer certain complex medical or dental conditions demand accurate and sensitively crafted content to enable prudent choices. But for an American patient, the content must be visually engaging and interactive as possible to both attract and retain visitors on their site.  The third Authentic Brands study from Cohn & Wolfe canvassed the opinions of 12,000 individuals across 12 markets to examine the corporate behaviors valued in an authentic brand and explore the current issues that are most likely to damage brand authenticity. They stated that 93% of consumers would choose a brand they trust to be authentic over its competitors.  

When American patients see stock images sold for $1 on the internet on a medical tourism hospital's or clinic's website, and see the same photos on 42 other websites online, authenticity goes out the window.  If there's a mismatch, or inconsistency, misspelled words, words that aren't idiomatically aligned with how people across parts of North America use English language, there's a mismatch, straightaway.

The trust bond in health tourism marketing is like a delicate chemical bond. Think back to elementary chemistry.  Atoms might be connected by strong bonds and organized into molecules or crystals. Or they might form temporary, weak bonds with other atoms that they bump into or brush up against.  Internet marketing is very similar. Consumers, like atoms, are trying to reach the most stable (lowest-energy) state that they can (where the trust can occur). Many atoms become stable when their valence shell is filled with electrons or when they satisfy the octet rule (by having eight valence electrons). If atoms don’t have this arrangement, they’ll “want” to reach it by gaining, losing, or sharing electrons via bonds. The eight valence electrons in your advertising collateral and content, (visual images, use of words and phrases, color, typeset, brand image, professional reputation, brand integrity, testimonials, etc?) are what a patient with a complex health condition or their family member will use as they attempt to award their trust.  Most medical tourism websites are missing most of the eight valence electrons necessary to form that octet and instead focus on two things: JCI accreditation and cheaper prices. When I remove those two items, the rest of what they say is the same content they use to market to locals. That's because they don't have a targeting strategy, they are broadcasting to the whole world. That's pure ego! It won't work. It never has. But thousands of medical and dental tourism marketers make the same mistakes every day.

2. Make good use of audio and video collateral

The research is everywhere. Average readers get more from a story with images, video, and sound. Unfortunately, the part that many healthcare providers (HCPs) miss or underestimate is the importance of  which types of video, images and sound will resonate with the American patient. Is an in-depth exploration of a knee or hip surgery too graphic? Is an interview with a transplant or cancer survivor helpful? While a surgery video may be right for a hospital or a surgeon to show on their website and in their marketing, a medical tourism facilitator is not viewed as the authority so a facilitator website with a surgery video or a facilitator explaining a medical condition or procedure is inappropriate and a waste of bandwidth.  This is true also when the facilitator happens to be a physician or nurse. The patient doesn't view you as that anymore, they view you as a salesperson or administrative helper. So just having video, audio or images isn't enough. It has to be the appropriate video, audio or images to make a difference.

3. Incorporate past patient stories and testimonials

That's more difficult than most realize, especially in the beginning before you've attracted, treated and discharged a few U.S. patients. That seems to be where many of the new clients I am hired by are in their business. Early phase, just starting out, and wondering where all the patients are that were referred to in some of the propaganda research put out by certain trade association publishers and conference organizers. Many of my readers know my feeling about enumeration in medical tourism reports and claims by destination marketers. And the reason for my negativity is exactly this: the risk of people making false and ill-paced trust and reliance on these reports that give rise to false expectations about the volumes of American patients lined up to board the flight to a foreign medical or dental tourism destination.

4. Keep it simple

U.S. patients question doctors, technicians, and nurses every day. They search medical terms. And they won't connect with medical or dental tourism sellers who appear to talk down to them or use technical jargon with them. I once was hired by a surgeon in Brazil to critique a website that had been created for him by an advertising agency claiming expertise in healthcare marketing and advertising.  The surgeon's content was all about his technical prowess, the scalpels he used, and some other terms that I had to look up - and I am trained and experienced as a surgical nurse. Once I looked up the terms that confused me, they were just synonyms for something else that was much more frequently articulated using different terms.  Some were actually brand names of the surgical instruments, rather than the name of the instrument itself.   The nomenclature of surgical instruments follows certain patterns, such as a description of the action it performs (for example, scalpel, hemostat), the name of its inventor(s) (for example, the Kocher forceps), or a compound scientific name related to the kind of surgery (for example, an osteotome is a tool used to perform a osteotomy). But in this case, what had happened was that the surgeon used the term in Brazilian Portuguese that was then literally translated to English. Actually none of that content is appropriate for use in a website that is meant to connect with patients.

5. Avoid bias

Bias exists in healthcare. There. I've said it. The dirty little secret is out. In some cultures, women are treated differently than men for the same complaints. This bias may be culturally acceptable in some treatment destinations, and we thought it was not characteristic of U. S. culture. But as we are learning as the Trump Administration continues, discrimination, bias, misogyny, and racism appear to be flourishing in parts of the U.S. with some groups of people. Medical and dental tourism marketers outside the U.S. may be committing methodological nationalism with some messages and content and graphics on their website. While these messages may appeal to some Americans, the rest of us are greatly offended and embarrassed or outraged by these messages.  The work of getting to know one's customer so that marketing messages can be spot-on relevant is becoming far more difficult as the nation divides on diversity and tolerance issues. Fail on this and you instantly disconnect.

6. Make the patient the protagonist

Too many medical and dental tourism marketers market themselves by talking about features they believe differentiate them from competitors. No feature is ever a competitive advantage. It is the way someone benefits from the feature that creates the condition or circumstance that puts a medical or dental tourism seller in a favorable or superior business position.   If you want to create impact with your marketing, the patient must be the protagonist in your story, not your price, your technology, or your JCI accreditation.

Medical tourism business development is much more than selling off excess operating theater capacity and surgeon or non-surgical specialist appointment availability

Too many medical and dental tourism marketers market themselves by talking about features they believe differentiate them from competitors. No feature is ever a competitive advantage. It is the way someone benefits from the feature that creates the condition or circumstance that puts a medical or dental tourism seller in a favorable or superior business position.   If you want to create impact with your marketing, the patient must be the protagonist in your story, not your price, your technology, or your JCI accreditation.