Greece aims for healthy medical tourism growth

Despite still being pummelled by an economic crisis that started in 2009, the country has the ingredients to build a significant health sector to appeal to overseas patients.

From facilities to climate and diet, Greece has factors working in its favour as a medical tourism destination. Above, an Athens hospital operating theatre. Aris Messinis / AFP
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ATHENS // Greece is joining the legions of countries tapping into the growing global medical tourism market.

With its temperate climate and medical staff who carry a worldwide reputation for excellence, it is no wonder that Greece is establishing itself as a destination for medical tourism. The sector has strong potential for growth thanks to using the country’s existing and world famous tourism infrastructure as a stepping stone.

Given that tourism alone contributes about 18 per cent to Greece’s GDP annually, the diversification of the sector holds a lot of promise. According to a 2016 report by Deloitte healthcare is one of the world’s largest industries at close to 10 per cent of world GDP. This coincides with a rise in high-income households (those with incomes of above US$25,000 annually) particularly in Asia and the Middle East, plus longer life expectancies.

The benefits of medical tourism for the economy are several. It acts as a revenue generator by attracting foreign visitors, often leaning more towards the luxury market, who spend money in the local economy through medical treatments, hotel stays, food consumption and more.

It also contributes to the tourism industry, helps to develop medical infrastructure as countries strive to remain competitive, and can reverse the brain drain phenomenon by encouraging doctors to remain in their home country and practice their skills there, a perk that Greece could certainly do with having lost large swathes of qualified staff to overseas markets since the start of the crisis.

The factors working in Greece’s favour are many. Security wise, Greece is considered a safe destination. The country’s landscapes span beaches with a hot, dry atmosphere through to lush green forests high in the crisp air of the mountains, meaning that patients have a range of choices when it comes to where to stay during their recovery period. The country’s rich natural wealth of therapeutic springs, plentiful sunshine and a world-renowned diet heavily based on olive oil, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables are added bonuses to promote wellness.

As for the patients, they come in search of a range of treatments. Greece is a popular destination for dialysis patients, for example, thanks to a number of dialysis centres spread across the country, including in holiday hotspots. This means treatment can be non-intrusively combined with a holiday. Other procedures sought by patients include IVF, eye surgery, dental procedures, rehabilitation and plastic surgery.

Giorgos Patoulis, the president of the Athens Medical Association and Central Union of Municipalities of Greece, is active in the promotion of the country for those seeking high-quality medical treatment at an affordable price. He recently co-organised a two-day event in the United States promoting the country as a medical tourism destination, and is involved in the planning of a conference to promote Greek medical tourism on the island of Ithaca on May 27-28 this year.

“Greece combines medical excellence with excellent sanitation and the most modern technology,” he tells The National. “At the same time, it is one of the best tourist destinations in the world with a remarkable infrastructure that can meet all needs.”

Dr Patoulis says that the development of health tourism is a golden opportunity for those who want to invest in it, given the global growth in health tourism – worldwide, the medical tourism market is estimated to be worth up to $32 billion to $55bn annually. A 2013 estimate by the World Medical Tourism and the Global Healthcare Congress stated that the total market for medical tourism could reach 16 per cent of the overall income generated by the tourism industry by this year. It is a market that could offer a substantial boost to the Greek economy with enough attention and proper development.

The proximity of Greece to the Middle East gives it a competitive edge when it comes to attracting customers from this key market. “Our countries have excellent bilateral economic and trade relations, which can and should be further strengthened through more cooperation in various fields, among which is medical tourism,” says Dr Patoulis.

Daily flight connections and the abolition of visa requirement for citizens of the UAE in the Schengen area further incentivise visitors from this market to seek treatments in Greece according to Dr Patoulis. Greece is one of 26 European states that have officially abolished passports and any other type of border control at their mutual borders

“From the time of Hippocrates until today what has not changed is the therapeutic benefits offered by the sea and sun in Greece,” adds Dr Patoulis

“In recent years, our country has developed into an ideal destination for medical tourism due to the modernisation of infrastructure, high-quality hotels and especially because of the internationally renowned medical and nursing staff,” he says. But, as Dr Patoulis points out, sustaining momentum and attracting investment are key in order to reap the full economic benefits.

“Medical tourism is a golden opportunity for Greece as it can be an important driving force for the development of the Greek economy. We have developed an important strategy to promote it that will be launched in the coming period. However, the Greek state should take advantage of this opportunity and make the necessary interventions,” Dr Patoulis says.

One of the medical centres vying for key position for foreign visitors to receive medical care is the Athens Medical Group. It is the leading healthcare provider in south-eastern Europe, with eight state of the art hospitals in Athens and Thessaloniki. The group also has centres of excellence and cutting-edge medical procedures including robotic surgery, neurosurgery and oncology.

“Athens Medical Group strategically focuses on providing excellent, value-for-money, VIP services to international patients, annually treating more than 7,500 international patients from 55 countries, including the UAE and Middle East,” Dr Christina Doubali, the head of International Patient Department tells The National.

“Through international collaborations with governments and tour operators, Athens Medical Group provides attractive solutions to international patients wishing to combine their vacations with check-ups or planned surgeries at ultra-modern facilities.

“Additionally, the group successfully covers the needs of numerous tourists every year, who happen to confront urgent health issues while on vacation,” she says.

Until recently there was no organised way for patients to arrange their trip to Greece. That changed with the foundation of the Greek Health Tourism Confederation, the brainchild of Dr Constantine Constantinides. Now in its fourth year, the confederation brings together key players in the health tourism industry to promote Greek medical tourism and attract investment.

“Greece is regarded as an emerging health tourism destination and has a number of advantages over established health tourism destinations, because it can avoid previous mistakes, doesn’t carry baggage and can implement relevant strategies from the start,” says Dr Constantinides.

He explains that in order for Greece to gain a strong foothold in the medical tourism sector, a targeted strategy whereby patient groups would primarily be focused on is vital. “Greek providers will be addressing the conventional health tourism market but, in my opinion, they are more likely to achieve success by focusing on the health tourism luxury market.”

Of course, the efforts to raise Greece’s profile as a medical tourism destination are not without difficulties.

“The challenges are both internal and external. Internal challenges are industry fragmentation, factionalism and dissension, government intervention, persisting uncertainty, poor public finances and a cash-strapped public sector,” says Dr. Constantinides.

“These challenges are by no means insurmountable. We aim to deal with them in a concerted and methodical manner.”

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