China Medical Tourism: A buyer or seller of services?

China Medical Tourism: A confusing topic at best.

Is China an inbound or outbound medical tourism market? Many of us in the industry are confused by what we read and hear when considered in the context of what we see when we visit. At best, the Chinese citizens show us that they are leaving the country in record numbers to find care outside their country. On the other hand, private and public health facilities within China are marketing their excess capacity as if selling surgeries is all there is to building a medical tourism product.

China has done little to set itself in the minds of consumers as a leading destination for medical tourism. I know this first hand, because others besides me have tried to sell the destination to clients. The discussion is generally a non-starter inciting a number of rebuttals, even for those who have foreign nationals working there full time.  I read most everything I can on China health tourism development.  There has been very little of any depth or significance other than a few MTA press releases about attempts to set up an office there some years ago.

Activity amounts to some initiatives to achieve JCI Accreditation, which in and of itself has absolutely nothing to do with medical tourism. One project in particular was directed to me. The project was for a 7000 bed military hospital that had serious scandal easily found in the press tied to some questionable practices in organ donation. In that instance, (2013) I was approached by some middle-man from within China to send a consultant to China for 6 months for a project fee of $15,000 including travel and accommodation, indicating no grasp of reality. That kind of a project generally commands a consulting fee in the range of about USD $250,000, plus travel expenses for a projec of that magnitude.  He told me I was competing with a retired consultant from Singapore. I wished my competitor luck.

In another instance, in 2013, I authorized a Mercury Advisory Group sponsored summer internship for a Chinese international business student studying at the University of Miami in Florida. She returned to China to perform a situation analysis of medical tourism readiness, after spending time with me to learn how to conduct the analysis and what data to collect.

She spend the entire summer there. She was no stranger to healthcare. Her father was a retired physician from the public health service and her mother a nurse. She was given my usual survey tools and coached on the questions to ask to collect data. Most of the hospitals refused to grant interviews, and those whodid grant interviews asked not to be quoted. Therefore, the entire summer internship was unable to be officially published though we have statistics and photographs and interview findings from someone fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese as a native speaker, (so there was no cultural or linguistic mininterpretation).  What she did elaborate was the sentiment of a sampling of ethnic and expatriate Chinese citizens who prefer to leave China and seek care elsewhere.  This is especially true of those who have the financial means to choose where they would like to receive care.  From what I reviewed confidentially, there was no indication of destination readiness. There was a small amount of medical tourism readiness from a few individual stakeholder health facilities, but that does not an industry make for a country the size of China.

To position a destination as a medical tourism candidate, the nation must rally behind the stakeholders’ independent preparation with a commitment of a management services and marketing infrastructure, innovation, safety and regulatory environment, communications freedom and support (for example, unrestricted access to the internet search engines and social media channels for locals and visitors, alike) and geographic proximity to airports to support  the industry to thrive.  The number of internationally accredited health facilities and ambulatory clinics are few by comparison to the number of facilities throughout the counry.

Simultaneously, there seems to be no “product” or destination strategy.  My colleagues and consulting peers have attended numerous conferences focused on medical tourism in some way or another. I won’t go. There’s no real reason to attend. In most cases, as in the messages I received yesterday, they invite me to be an exhibitor or sponsor and pay to develop and present an educational program to their paying audience.  That is not an option.

These conferences usually amount to government officials talking ( for long periods of time) about nothing in particular with regard to sector development, but instead offering rhetoric and propaganda about the market. This indicates that they haven’t a clue what it takes to develop a medical tourism destination strategy, a target source market strategy, or specific brand recognition and product development. They just have hospitals and extra beds and under utilized physicians to sell at a cheap price. A medical tourism strategy requires so much more. At the same time, they don’t want advice. When it is offered generously, they react to the offer with disdain and mockery, calling us “stupid Americans”, “too direct” and “American imperialists”. These reports come from the unofficial channels, from native speakers, familiar with the players and the culture, so again, no misinterpretations.

Next, if a trained observer on travel and tourism reviews statistics on outbound travel from China, it is apparent that the Chinese are buying healthcare in Singapore and other established medical tourism destinations.  They are buying plastic surgery, assisted reproduction and gender selection services, branded products, regenerative medicine, orthopedic and cancer care, and heart surgery from outside of China. They are buying destination wedding services in Greece and other locations in Europe. They are purchasing cosmetic surgery services to westernize nose and eye shape, hair restoration, and other services similar to the western patients. In Europe, several plastic and cosmetic surgeons have mastered these techniques as well as cleft palate repairs.

Their average spend rivals that of fully developed nations, buying branded upmarket items, staying in upmarket hotel and resort accommodations, and enjoying fine dining. Those traveling with full family entourage spare no expense and their length of stay at detinations tends to be in the range of 8-12 days, on average.

So in light of this, what do you think? Is China Medical Tourism an inbound or outbound market? Share your thoughts.

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