Health Tourism 2018: Medicine Back At Home in Greece
By Phil Butler, Analyst and Editor in Chief at Argophilia Travel News
In May of 2017 a distinguished group of doctors and government officials met at a medical tourism summit in Ithaca, Greece. The objective of the summit was to begin paving the road toward a long awaited unified health tourism engine for Greece. "Health Tourism: Engine of the National Economy's Growth" did not simply address the vast potential for expanding Greece's domestic tourism offering year-round, the conference introduced the beginning roadmap for a "new pillar" for the long-term recovery of the Greek economy. This report delves into a rare economic anomaly, a situation where one of the world's most mature hospitality and tourism destinations can grow geometrically into the 21st century.
Some History, Facts, and Market Development
Greece as a therapeutic or medical tourism destination is by no means a new idea. In fact, the origins of medical tourism can be traced back to the first Greeks and foreigners who travelled to the tiny Mediterranean town of Epidauria in the Saronic Gulf, and to the sanctuary of Asclepios, the god of healing. Today, despite having one of the world's best reputations for medicine, Greece is eyed by a relative few patients who might otherwise choose a doctors and clinics here. Part of the problem is perception and marketing, as Greece's actual share of the global market is far lower than it should be. And this is where the potential for market growth and a boost to Greece's economy lies. Since Greece doctors and clinics achieve parity (sometimes the advantage over) with the overall world set, what we can expect to see soon is a "shift" in this overall market.
To understand this special potential, it's crucial to examine how the global price-driven market is over simplified and underestimated. Secondly, we must focus at the local level and submarkets for further clues. A fully functioning and competitive national plan/strategy cannot hope to operate without the integration and cooperation of regional, city, clinic or hospital, and physician service provider level actors. Let me first address the how Greece is engaging to create a synergy for a new national health tourism strategy.
Using Greece as an example, simply assuming people will visit for a procedure or for wellness because of Greece's economic situation is flawed logic. Greece's (or any country's) real health tourism advantages are far more complex. The synopsis of the report by Research and Markets in 2016 contains one paragraph that lays the groundwork for creating a successful national level strategy:
"Every country and organization needs to update and refine its medical tourism strategy and to do that they need to know the latest on which countries are doing well or badly, who goes there, the treatment they seek and why they go there. Strategy cannot be decided in a bubble-it needs full knowledge of what is happening now in medical tourism. What worked in 2015 may fail in 2017."
The same scholarly paper introduces Greece's biggest stumbling blocks, and alludes to recent governmental focus has been prioritized toward solving these problems like systems integration, certifications, and regulation, etc.
This study (PDF) entitled; "A Supply Side Investigation of Medical Tourism and ICT Use in Greece," was published in 2014, addressed the willingness of vested interests in Greece to invest in growing the market for medical tourism in Greece. I cite this paper in support of my "parity" thesis above:
"As technology and medical know-how dissolved to emerging market countries, a new model of medical tourism – from rich to poor countries – evolved over the last two decades. Rich country tourists started to exploit the possibility of combining tourist aspects with medical ones (Horowitz, M.D., Rosensweig, J.A. & Jones, C.A. 2007)."
At this point it is appropriate to discuss key movers for Greece transitioning into a more flexible competitor.
Dr. George Patoulis (above), who's among many other disciplines, President of the head of the Initiative of Health Tourism in Greece (HTG) has been on the road lately from Chicago in the US, to the Ithaca summit in a string of conferences aimed at dissemination, fact finding, and key networking. Patoulis, who has essentially become the ambassador in between all stakeholders, has already begun to affect the necessary binding linkages in between service providers, local and national governments, and even public and private sector business and investment players. In November of 2017 Patoulis was speaking in Bucharest, Romania when he predicted growth in Greece's health tourism could be worth $2 billion to the economy in the next three years. While working with colleagues like Secretary General for Tourism Policy and Development, Yiorgos Tziallas at home to iron out big hurdles like insurance coverage for patients from abroad. For Tziallas' part, he's been working with state-run health insurer EOPYY to create a network that will includeinsurance funds from other countriesin efforts to attract more travelers seeking medical services. Meanwhile, Patoulis is focused on building the conduits and connections to make Greece more visible, accessible, and attractive for medical and wellness tourists. On creating cohesive partnerships, here's what Patoulis had to say recently:
"Many steps still need to be taken… through these initiatives and actions we are bringing Balkan countries together with Greece, Israel and Italy, in order to create a global structure that will attract more people to health tourism. "
Providers of Health & Hospitality
It's been established by the work of Ioannis Sarantopoulosa , Katsoni Vickyb , and Mary Geitonac in the International Conference on Strategic Innovative Marketing (ICSIM) paper referred, that hospitality executives and others are more than willing to invest in Greece's health tourism growth. Also, the much-needed work being done by George Patoulis and colleagues at the national and international level is a forecast for segment growth. And in December 2017, Greek Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura called on foreigners to in thematic Greek tourism, while speaking at Capital Link Ιnvest in Greece Forum in New York. But, we have yet to address the status at the other end of the supply chain, where service providers (doctors, therapists, and hospitality executives) plug into the system.
However, to better frame the current picture of industry possibility we talked with a few key professionals who are at the leading edge of a new health tourism boom here on Crete. Since elective surgical procedures and services might be Greece's first boom, we decided to ask renowned plastic surgeon, Dr. Ioannis Liapakis about the potential at the local level. A pioneer in the development of innovative techniques in facial, body and breast surgery, Liapakis' state-of-the art clinic, OpsisClinical in Heraklion, is within easy reach of some of the island's finest spa-resorts, the University Hospital (Pagni), and other key accommodations for potential wellness tourists. I asked Liapakis about differentiation points for cosmetic and other surgical procedures on Crete. Here is what he had to say about Crete's unique features:
"Crete in particular, is well suited to provide extremely personalized care for patients. The combination of incredible savings for procedures and accommodations is one key differentiator. No waiting lists, access to immediate care, and the close knit medical community are another."
When asked about Crete's potential, Dr. Liapakis told "the sky is the limit", reflecting on the fact that genuine medical tourism is an untapped market on the island. So far, at least. He also touched on what I had referred to as "Greece's medical/tech parity" with America and the UK, an referred to Opsiscinical's collaborations and connections with the "Institute of Research and Technology" and with the "University of Crete Medical School."
Next, in order to show the logical connective blocks, I contacted the most prolific spa management company in Greece and on Crete, Aegeo Spas. If one looks at any of the finest hotels and resorts offering wellness attributes on Crete, Aegeo's brand almost always stands behind. And since spa's and hotel accommodations are the next logical step in integrating a local, regional, or state program of medical tourism – well, who knows best how prepared Crete hotels and resorts are? No matter what kind of therapy or recuperation is required, patients will naturally be drawn to the providers with the most complete solution. I asked Aegeo Spas' marketing department about their hotel partners and the spa and wellness market overall. The marketing people from Greece's biggest spa management company assured me that resort and hotel competitiveness is already driving hoteliers to adapt to the health trend worldwide. What this means for the overall medical tourism niche in Greece, is that baseline services and accommodations are already in place. On this "competitiveness" track, Aegeo's spokesperson told us:
"There needs to be constant innovation and creative wellness offering that is ahead of competitors, but which still focuses on the authenticity of the hotel or resort. As there are shifts during this new era of wellness, there needs to be a shift in thinking and appropriate steps forward."
My pre-analysis of the attractiveness and the dynamics of the special Greek market within the specialization of health tourism is, of course, incomplete. In future reports I shall more fully address the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) within the Greece and Crete markets for companies intent on engaging. And while my job has mostly been in the promotional realm, several aspects such as; facilities, capital investment, and the professional workforce here on Crete have become interesting for me of late. Where Crete is concerned, a recent health emergency for me introduced me to cardiac care in an unwanted but meaningful scenario at University Hospital here in Heraklion. My ultimate urgent need for an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) led me to discover professionals like Cardiologist-Electrophysiologist, Dr. Emmanuel Kanoupakis. As it turned out (very thankfully), my doctor is also one of the world's most experienced experts in heart rhythm research and pacemaker/ICD interventions. So, if first hand experiences mean anything for cardiology tourism, then Kanoupakis and University Hospital, Heraklion (Pagni) get a five-star TripAdvisor review from this writer.
All levity aside, my research into my own heart condition was telling in more ways than one. Not only was I lucky enough to land in the care of one of Greece's best research facilities, it turns out Greece is where much of the cutting-edge heart research takes place. I've no more space here for providing all the information, but the research that powers world renowned cardiac UK surgeon Professor Steve Westaby's stem cell heart tissue breakthroughs was initially done in Greece. My point being, all the building blocks are nicely in place for Crete and for the larger Greek medical tourism niche. Price, quality of care, accessibility, associated therapies, hotels and resorts, and legendary Greek hospitality take us right back where humanity started healing. I know that here on Crete, we say "Crete takes care of you" – and that's the best marketing slogan for health tourism I can think of.