Travel for Treatment - Can Georgia Play?
21 October, 2010
Travel for Treatment - Can Georgia Play?

Nick  Assatiani

Having a permanent personal physician or dentist is still unusual for an average Muscovite.

 

When trouble comes, one makes a decision based on the cost of procedure, choosing between the overcrowded public clinic and the shiny expensive private hospital.

 

 


The difference in price, quality and service is sometimes enormous, leaving free public treatment to the poor, and private sector to the rich. So what do the ‘middle-class’ patients choose? Many of them do not wish low quality gratis but also

cannot afford to pay the full bill.  In the market economy, such a gap cannot be left open for long. The unsatisfied demand from the Russian patients is being largely met by the neighboring countries. Medical tourism – or ‘leaving home’ for treatments and care abroad has become usual in the health care industry. I was not surprised at all when my closest relative, a modest IT support specialist, flew to Budapest, Hungary for complicated dentistry. The roundtrip with accommodation and treatment altogether was 40% cheaper than the similar service in Moscow. Medical tourism today is one of the fastest growing travel industry sectors in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.  But what’s wrong with receiving treatment locally? The problem is that the free public healthcare system, inherited from the Soviet era, has been deteriorating ever since the collapse of the USSR. The reform in this sphere is something that the smaller ex-Soviet republics (the Baltics from the very start, Georgia followed lately) have pursued to reduce the burden on the state budget by introducing medical insurance culture. Russian government, on the contrary, was trying to maintain the nationwide network of public clinics in support of free medicine for all. Unfortunately for us, the task was too challenging even when Russia’s economy was boosting. Taken per cent to GDP, the public healthcare spending has been below 3% for years, while the World Health Organization officially recommends 6-7% of GDP as a level of sustainability. The lack of finance led to depreciation of facilities, shortage of medications, emigration of doctors and personnel, and consequent decline of nation’s health indicators such as life expectancy (134th in the world!), death rates caused by basic diseases, and depopulation.  Seemingly, the weaknesses of public healthcare should have triggered the development of commercial medicine. Yes the private clinics are in abundance in the capital, where the level of luxury consumption makes their operation feasible. But as mentioned above, in most cases their services are not affordable for the public. The reasons are quite general, well-known to anyone doing business in Russia, and have nothing to do with ‘capitalist greed’ (as the high prices are often perceived by the elderly). Costs, business risks, legal issues of operating a private hospital in Moscow such as corruption, taxation, customs, are leaving modest margin even for those working in a premium price sector. Lower rates are possible only in a more business-friendly environment, which Russia definitely does not offer. Therefore, Russian middle-class patients have deliberately joined the global medical tourism market in a search for higher level of medical care at acceptable rates. According to the data published at the Moscow Medical & Health Tourism Congress in March, Russia already stands as a second largest consumer market for medical services abroad. The destinations range from Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Hungary, to China, Thailand and Singapore. These and other traditional recipient countries offer advanced technology, better and faster medical services. I believe that Georgia can also play in this market. The government and business have invested much and achieved considerable success in attracting tourists for recreation. Would it be an additional step to attract even more by offering a chance to combine a vacation with medical procedures? Some travelers do it already with pleasure. According to the survey commissioned by the Department of Tourism and Resorts of Georgia in 2008, 2, 2% of incoming tourists stated that their main purpose of visit to Georgia was health and medical care.  The idea could seem just wishful thinking, but as a good example I would suggest the success story of Jordan, a country more or less close to Georgia in terms of size, geography, economy and human capital. The government started from scratch, and only a few years after having adopted the medical tourism development strategy, it has become number one in the Middle East in foreign patient arrivals. The scope of medical services provided is wide, the quality is proven, and the prices affordable. Construction of medical facilities and resorts, as well as marketing of the destination was co-financed by USAID, and we know that Georgian government is also good in attracting investment and funding.  The medical tourism market globally is experiencing extraordinary growth. The concept of attracting patients would ideally fit in the further development of Georgia as a popular travel destination. I wish I met a representative of Department of Tourism and Resorts at a next Moscow Congress in spring, when the industry professionals will get together to discuss the market trends and patient flows from Russia. On my side, I will do my best to convince my beloved cousin to treat his arthritis at a Brand New Akhtala Balneological Health Resort in Gurjaani. Provided that it’s renovated, well-marketed and launched. I really hope that it doesn’t take long in Georgia, where the amazing progress in tourist infrastructure is so visible in such a short time!

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