Synergy of Western and indigenous medicine suggested as edge over the rest
By Fathima Riznaz Hafi
Export Development Board (EDB) has sought the assistance of US-based Medical Travel Quality Alliance (MTQUA) to bring Sri Lanka forward in the area of medical tourism. Under the invitation of EDB, representatives from MTQUA arrived in the country recently to share valuable insights and guide interested parties to carry out the operation.
Speaking at a seminar on ‘International Quality Standards for Health Tourism’ held on 7 December, EDB Director General Jeevani Siriwardena said: “In most countries service exports have a greater role in the GDP but in developing countries it is still the goods that account for the greater share. It is very important that we increase our share of services in the GDP. The Charter given to the Sri Lanka export community is to get a $ 20 billion turnover both in goods and services by 2020. EDB as the national export promotion agency is now focussing more towards the promotion of export of services. In this regard providing the knowledge to increase the export earnings from the service sectors such as tourism and in this context the knowledge created to get the tourism sector for medical tourism developed is one of our key priorities.”
“A few hospitals in Sri Lanka are already accredited to international standards but there are far more numbers not accredited or don’t even have basic standard; whereas when goods are concerned the majority of export companies do have certain certifications like ISO. For services we have yet to develop it and the fact that we have these two resource persons from the medical industry is a great asset to us to get to know more about how Sri Lankan companies can comply with the certifications that are required because unless Sri Lankan companies have these certificates the international community (buyers) have the fear of travelling to Sri Lanka or taking the service from us. The international recognised certificates will give them the confidence and they will be happy to then get our services,” she said.
What MTQUA does
MTQUA is an independent international organisation, focussed specifically on the patient who travels for healthcare or wellness care. It focuses on what the patient needs, in terms of the quality of the services and the support of the treatment that they get. It works with everybody at the value chain of medical tourism; that is; everybody who touches the medical traveller.
The MTQUA representatives who arrived in Sri Lanka hope to better educate interested parties on the necessary steps to be taken in order to jump on the bandwagon. MTQUA President Julie Munro is a frequent speaker at medical tourism and healthcare conferences. She works with leading hospitals in Europe, North America and Asia, in international patient management and therefore has practical knowledge of healthcare operators in developing and post-conflict countries.
Stressing that medical tourists are not ordinary patients Munro said, “When somebody travels away from their home and is put into a strange environment they face a lot more difficulties, stressful issues and problems than they would have if they sought treatment at home because they are in a foreign country. MTQUA’s mission is focussed on the patient, working with all the providers and suppliers to make sure that patient gets the best possible outcomes.”
MTQUA also has a ‘medical travel alert’, whereby it advises against travel to certain countries for treatment or that certain precautionary measures be taken on arrival. It has a set of best practices and also a list that is published every year, of the world’s top 10 best hospitals for medical tourists. It also provides education and training and now has the certification for medical tourism. MTQUA is presently in more than 20 countries around the globe.
Health tourism, medical tourism and wellness tourism
Munro noted that these terms tend to be used in many different ways and there needs to be a common understanding:
Health tourism in general is the whole gamut of any kind of health or wellness travel-related activities. It includes wellness, spirituality and eco tourism.
Wellness tourism is very specifically travel for the purpose of maintaining one’s health or well-being. “The difference between a wellness tourist and a tourist who walks into a spa is the wellness tourist has gone to a place with a specific purpose of obtaining some kind of wellness experience; it’s not the same as the casual tourist who gets off a cruise ship and decides to have a massage or his teeth whitened,” said Munro.
“That is an indicator when we consider our marketing – when you know that people are looking for something, you market it to them in a different way than you would to a regular tourist,” she added.
Medical tourism is specifically related to obtaining medical diagnosis, treatment and care. At this point she brought up the possibility of the inclusion of Ayurveda as there are people who prefer to use non-invasive and traditional forms of medicine. “Maybe Ayurveda should be considered in medical travel; however there is a question: Is it ‘medical travel’ or ‘wellness travel’? For now, it is not considered medical tourism because it is non-invasive; with medical tourism there are invasive procedures involved, such as cutting open the skin, injections, anaesthesiologists and complications,” she said.
Ayurveda and wellness tourism
Wellness tourism is a $ 680 billion industry globally and is growing by 50% a year compared to other sectors of the tourism industry. At present out of every $ 7, a dollar is spent on activities related to wellness travelling. “When we look at the entire global wellness economy where we include wellness tourism, thermal springs, hot springs and the spa industry, we tend to forget there are so many aspects and that we have to include – the personalised medicine, nutrition, beauty and ageing and complementary medicine – all of this is now considered part of the wellness economy,” said Munro, adding that wellness economy is growing by leaps and bounds, now reaching over $ 3.4 trillion world-wide.
Expressing interest in including Ayurveda as part of wellness tourism she said, “We visited the Ayurveda Hospital and had a very interesting meeting with several of the doctors and staff there and also visited some centres and now have a better understanding and appreciation of Ayurveda as a traditional form of medicine and I think I’ll be looking at it a little more differently and in a more educated way in the future.” She suggested the scope for the inclusion of Ayurveda be strongly considered in the industry.
An edge over the rest
Munro spoke of location-specific treatment whereby people choose a particular country or area for the more authentic experience specific to the location.
“Traditional medicine provided by African tribes would only be available in that area and the same goes for Indian, Chinese and other forms of traditional medicine. Similarly Sri Lanka has an edge over the rest because of its traditional Ayurvedic treatment. It is a system that is not practised in the Western world and therefore has something authentic and highly beneficial to offer,” she said.
“The integration of Ayurveda and Western medicine would pose tremendous benefit to the patient as well as to the development and growth of this industry!”
Accompanying Munro was MTQUA Senior Advisor Finance and Governance Janet Geddes who is a senior consultant with extensive international experience in healthcare, banking, insurance and hotel hospitality and real estate in UK, Europe, Middle East and Asia. Her work includes restructuring data on healthcare facilities in Thailand, cosmetic surgery clinics and spa centres in Asia and Europe.
Speaking on the accumulation of data on medical travellers entering a country, Geddes warned that the information could be highly misleading and generalised and therefore advised that we refrain from relying too much on statistics.
Referring to the methods of data collection in Thailand where she resides, she said: “I have lived in Thailand for 18 years; I’m a permanent resident. When I go to the hospital they still class me as a medical tourist; I am not a tourist! I live there – it’s my home but because I’m not a Thai national I tick the box for tourist. I go to the hospital from time to time and over 90% of the foreigners that I see there are resident in Thailand – they are not tourists,” she said stressing that the figures we get on medical tourism are therefore highly suspect.
Sri Lanka as a global health tourism destination
EDB Export Promotion Officer Vajira Kularathna referring to Sri Lanka’s prospects as a health tourism destination said the country has various strengths, making it an ideal location but it also has a number of weaknesses that need to be addressed and corrected in order to be successful in the market:
The country’s key strength in terms of health tourism is its well-developed medical system with internationally accredited hospitals boasting modern infrastructure facilities and modern Western medical services. Additional factors are the availability of indigenous medical services which include luxury Ayurveda resorts and hospitals, as well as alternative medicine such as Unani, Siddha and acupuncture. The healthcare providers consist of medical professionals, internationally recognised doctors, more than 5,000 registered indigenous medical practitioners and English speaking professional staff.
The fact that Sri Lanka is already a popular tourist destination which is renowned for its cultural and religious values and ancient sites along with the availability of a variety of tourism activities such as wildlife safaris, adventure, spiritual experiences and relaxation, reinforces its strength as a health tourism destination because this recognition could be a supporting factor in attracting medical tourists, Kularathna said.
In order to rise above our competition we need to present both a strong healthcare system as well as a hospitable country. She spoke of supporting facilities which include up-coming city hotels and apartments by global players, highways, airport and aviation services, shopping complexes, Wi-Fi hotspots and restaurants. Cost effectiveness when compared to other health service providers is another important factor contributing to its strength, she said.
Among Sri Lanka’s weaknesses are the lack of elements such as international promotions as a medical tourism destination, focused strategy, recognition from international insurance companies, supporting services such as airport pick-up and accommodation, awareness about Sri Lankan capabilities in health/medical services in Sri Lankan consultants abroad, and accommodation dedicated to family and friends of patients. There is also a limited number of resident doctors in hospitals and an inadequacy of trained staff (nurses, paramedical).
As a productive step forward, Kularathna spoke of synergising Sri Lankan Ayurveda and Western medicine in efforts to offer a more attractive package to medical tourists.“This would place it as a desirable destination for global health tourism. Another step would be that tourism activities be packaged for a medical traveller; also we could raise the awareness of tour operators, airport staff, hospitality industry and expatriates; and prioritise the capability for branding, raising awareness on the specialisations we offer (cardiac, kidney transplant, fertility, etc.),” she said.
Interested parties can promote their service by registering on the EDB professional services web portal: www.srilankaservicexport.com, where they can post their news and upcoming events.
- Pix by Lasantha Kumara