What's Wrong with Medical Tourism

Product Price Place & Promotion

B-School aficionados will recognize the sub-title as the "Four "P"s of Marketing. And, in fact, marketing is what's wrong with Medical Tourism, or MT. The marketing problem exposes itself when products fail to meet expectations, when pricing strategies create a false expectation, when the place fails to meet expected standards and when selling a pretty picture displaces selling the actual value of the product.  So, let's look at each of these problems at a more granular level. 

Product, what is the real "product" of medical tourism? Actually, MT represents several products and individual providers and purchasers make various product decisions whether they realize it or not. Product may be defined by the services offered, the medical and surgical specialties. But product may also be defined by a more granular definition of those services.

For example, are you offering board certified U.S. or EU trained physicians? Does your facility meet Joint Commission International Accreditation requirements? Are there other certifications that are appropriate to the services you provide. Do your products meet the expectations and the frame of reference of your clients? The bottom line is this, patients from the U.S. and most of Europe take medical quality for granted. They expect to "get well," so to speak, and they expect to have not only good outcomes, but U.S. healthcare has created the expectation for perfect outcomes. It is virtually impossible to cut human skin without leaving a scar of some type, but U.S. plastic surgery patients, are too often disappointed when a scar only they can see remains. 

Therefore, while you may define your product as total hip replacement surgery, your patients may be defining your product as their ability to walk 18 holes of golf in 30 days. Will you deliver? Can you deliver? How will you manage their expectations? That becomes your product.  

Further, let's speak candidly about one of the most politically sensitive issues you will face - your physician community. The second most common product failure is believing the "world" will view your physicians with the same respect for their abilities as you. Simply put, they won't. In Western countries, very transparent data sources are available that present physicians' credentials, their practice perspectives and even comparative data of both objective and subjective content. Today's global MT customer expects to be treated by the "best" physicians based on their ability to source and evaluate information.  That last phrase is most important and it is your key discussion point with your physician community. Your physicians may be fantastic practitioners able to speak to their successful outcomes, but if their quality cannot be both accessed and compared on the global platform, then they will not represent the marketing draw they must be for your MT program to be successful. As an old friend of my used to often state, "being good isn't good enough, you must be perceived as being good." 

Pricing is an overlooked strategy and in MT it is generally perceived that lower is better. Unfortunately, that perspective is exactly what drives the problems with the MT "product." Most people would rather pay less than more, but almost all people are interested as much in value as they are in price. Certainly, you can easily price yourself out of the market, but if you are generally perceived as providing value, then you have a solid position.  A solid pricing strategy is to make your customers feel they are getting more than they are paying for. But never make customers feel, I would have willingly paid more if the staff could have been more attentive, or if the facility could have been cleaner, or brighter, or..... "better." Being the low cost provider should not be an objective in a high quality, sustainable medical tourism enterprise.

Place is both simple and complex.... as part of the "place" discussion overlaps product. Place, however, most basically means first and foremost your clients feel safe and secure. From the moment they leave home until they return, safety and security are at the highest levels. So consider the airports your clients will need to travel through to reach you as well as your own destination as part of your "place." Even areas outside your country can be controlled, but it costs - and will your product and your pricing be able to support those costs? More controllable and more known is your own location. Is it safe, can clients - clients are both the patient and the patient's traveling companion(s), can they walk the streets outside your facility, can they drink the water, are hotels safe, and is your government stable, and does it have relationships with all the countries from which your clients may arrive? Those are all big picture "place" questions that almost always only arise during a problem, but when you have a problem with these big picture issues, you have a big problem. 

The other questions of place relate directly to your facility, your airport, your partner hotels and transportation. A U.S. State Department associate of mine once told me of visiting a local (where he was stationed) MT hospital for a surgical procedure. He said he'd never forget as he was wheeled into the surgical suite a bird flew over his head....

For the patient, facility is paramount, and it must first be clean. I once worked in a hospital where we kept a staff person with a floor buffer in our front lobby all day every day. No floor needs buffing that much, but his presence sent a strong message to every single visitor, no matter the time, "this place is clean and polished." Your facility need not be lavish, actually, research shows that patients don't really want lavish, but rather simplicity. Clean lines, light colors, subtle elegance. That includes staff uniforms, service ware, every aspect of item, instrument or device clients see.  And, remember, clients see out the windows as well. 

Finally, promotion... MT clients shop the internet, but most MT sites don't even qualify as second rate. MT providers communicate with poor language, poor illustrations and pictures and have an expectation that clients know what they want. In other words, most (obviously, exceptions exist)  MT web sites fail to present the MT product. Selling an international product is not the same as posting a web site, an online brochure, for local patients to learn about laboratory hours, how many departments you have or where to park.  The MT web site needs to be about contact, credibility and communications. Establish a point of contact, present the credibility of the medical staff and them initiate direct and deliberate communications with someone expert enough to answer the patients' questions. While the web will be the first point of contact, people sell goods and services to people. Your web must seamlessly integrate with your people who are doing the selling. None do.... 

What's wrong with MT is that it started as a low cost alternative to increasingly expensive technology and long lines in the queue and failed to mature. Accreditation is still spotty, few organizations recognize the value of the "experience" factor for clients, too many destinations are in locations many of us would never choose to visit, the medical staffs' credentials are not transparent, and little recourse exists for bad outcomes. Medical Tourism must either grow up or it will always be at the margins for both quality and credibility. 

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