Should SA be selling package holidays like this: All-inclusive Cape Town combo - luxe city break + lipo and a colonic'?

Should we be focusing more on medical tourism to draw tourists to SA?

Recently, Stats SA released a report that Americans are still South Africa’s top tourists (they love being number 1, mos) in terms of general tourism, making up over 21% of all of SA's international guests. Also on SA's biggest fans' list: The United Kingdom, India, Germany, France, Australia, China, The Netherlands, Brazil and Canada. 

Interestingly, however, it found that only 0,1% of tourists that visit South Africa come here for business, study and for medical treatment respectively. 

India, Brazil and Thailand are leaders in the business of medical tourism - offering travelling patients budget-friendly procedures, dentist work, cosmetic surgery and more.

Why has South Africa been left out of this loop?

Considering our world-class plastic surgeons, oncologists, etc. South Africa should be a contender on the medical tourism global stage.

Dr Paul J Skoll, a Cape Town-based plastic surgeon says, “There are very few European or America tourists that would come to South Africa, with the sole purpose of medical tourism."

He says it's an issue of the long-haul, first and foremost. 

“We’ve had a bit from Angola and Mozambique, but it’s a distance issue for many.”

READ: Medical tourism: SA tops for extended stays 

Dr Skoll notes, for example, UK patients would pay around 50% less in SA than in the UK for the same procedure. However, there are very small percentage of people that would choose to come to SA just for surgery. He figures that UK travellers would opt to go to Eastern Europe or Turkey instead, even Thailand.

Surgery, particularly cosmetic, would also be cheaper in a country like Poland. And not just that, the accommodation, rest and recuperation period (which can often be a month or more for many medical and cosmetic surgeries) would all cost less in Eastern Europe, than it would in SA. 

“The Americans just pop over to Mexico. Much cheaper.”

Despite what feels like our forever, and incessantly, declining ZAR, there are greener pastures out there in terms of exchange rate to quality-medical ratio. 

Saying that, issues pertaining to reputation of hospital or country and language barrier do, at times, deter UK and US patients in particular, from choosing these budget-friendly medical tourism countries.  

Dr Skoll says that websites offering safari + surgery type package deals – often UK-based gate-keeping companies contacting and contracting surgeons in SA, ie recruiting and facilitating the entire process of getting patients here for the sole purpose of medical tourism – used to be rife.

Over the years, the need for these types of packages either declined or the actual offering itself has transformed. 

A great example is Surgeon and Safari, perhaps the most prolific medical tourism agency in SA has moved away from cosmetic surgery. Founder, Lorraine Melvill says that SA is the pinnacle of medical excellence for sub Saharan Africa and that as a company and service it has moved into the medical space. Now working with large international companies and government in Africa needing specialist healthcare solutions rather that focusing on cosmetic procedures.

These packages might have also declined due to the fact that a lot of doctors were discouraged to do so, as institutions like the Medical Protection Society frown upon doctors accepting surgeries from abroad – i.e.this usually means doctors would require higher tiers of insurance cover as greater claims were received. 

And, understandably, surgeons prefer to deal directly with patients before surgery to assess each patient’s unique needs before signing on to do their surgery. 

“I do have some regular visitors that I see from the UK and Germany when they do travel to here,” says Dr Skoll.

However, he adds that these are patients who came to SA for holiday and decide on an impromptu Botox to lift the mood. So to speak.

These are not patients who hopped onto an 11-hour flight for the 'All-inclusive Cape Town combo: 2-weeks in the Mother City + liposuction and a colonic'. 

How do we identify medical tourists? 

If you think about it, who are these 0.1% of medical tourists, anyways? It’s not like this information is disclosed at immigration or found in your bag at customs. 

Immigration officer: “Reason for travel?”

German tourist: “I want bigger boobs! And they are so cheap in SA!”

Don’t see that happening. 

READ: The world’s safest country for women travelling alone is not a Nordic country  

Some European or American travellers to SA might have small procedures done on holiday by local physicians and recover before returning home. This way no one back home will know a thing. But this percentage is very small. 

Many countries like India and Turkey have employed strategies to grow their medical tourism market - pumping a lot of money into promoting itself as such a destination. Turkey, who are leading the charge in terms of rhinoplasty excellence, offers flight rates at discounted prices to medical travellers. And cost of receiving quality healthcare in Turkey is 50% to 65% lower in Turkey than in the United States, says Medical Tourism Mag.

In terms of job creation, foreign investment, etc. if done in numbers, it can be a lucrative economic boost for a country like SA. 

Dr Natalia Novikova, a Cape Town-based gynaecologist and laparoscopic surgeon, agrees, saying "We certainly have capacity, excellent skills, sound experience in private medical sector for medical tourism."

She figures that employing strategies to boost medical tourism to SA will have very positive effects all round. “I have a number of patients who travel for procedures and they all gave fantastic reviews of services they received.”

Who should SA be targeting? 

With an uptake in tourist to SA from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, there is big potential for growth in this market.

Surgeon and Safari, Lorraine Melvill says that because of SA's proximity to the African SADC countries just outside our borders, the focus must be placed there. In terms of medical tourism (largely excluding cosmetic surgery), SADC countries often don't have the "quality or quantity in their own countries and in some cases have no specialists."

Governments, INTL insurers, large self-insured corporates and other high-net worth individuals will thus use SA for any and or most specialist care. 

The benefits are huge for patients, says Melvill as the quality of healthcare supply chain is high, the access is easy and there is the comfort of sharing a similar culture.

"Some (patients) will look for cheap alternatives and will seek out India, as an example. While many (African) countries prefer their previous colonial power like France due to language. Even using Tunisia and or Morocco."

Maybe what is needed is not a package holiday per se, but rather an investment in promoting and marketing the skills and expertise of local medial practitioners as a way to draw medical tourism investment to South African borders. 

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