It wasn’t too long ago when COVID-19 was an unknown term. However, by the first quarter of 2020, everyone already knew about the new coronavirus strain causing it. Soon, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Countrywide lockdowns, airport closures, and social distancing became the norm as movement had to be limited and travel restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These measures adopted across the globe affected the travel and leisure sector immensely, including medical travel and tourism.
COVID-19’s effects on medical tourism providers
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the global economy to vulnerabilities previously unknown or ignored. These economic impacts are generally unequal as certain economies have proven more resilient than others. A similar trend can be seen in how the global health crisis continues to affect different medical tourism providers or segments of the industry:
- Small or startup medical travel agencies and consultants: Considered the most vulnerable to fluctuations in medical tourism numbers, these small individual establishments usually have limited cash flow and smaller budgets. Sometimes run by a single individual or a small team, these medical travel facilitators are the first to retrench personnel, make significant cutbacks (including marketing spending), and perhaps even close shop for the time being. Post-COVID-19, these businesses might find it difficult to make a comeback after months of closure.
- Medium-sized medical tourism operators or service providers: Typical average-sized agencies and clinics that have been in business for several years are, of course, in a better position to keep their business going even after the “new normal” is in place. However, downsizing is inevitable due to continuing travel restrictions. They would have had to save on expenses, cancel event participation, and decrease marketing spending and other expenditures overall.
- Large agencies, hospital groups, clinics, and hospitals: These establishments have been around for possibly decades and have benefited greatly from the many boom years of medical travel and tourism. These large, well-established businesses that enjoyed significant revenues for many years are likely to remain heavily invested in the industry, and to treat COVID-19 like any other crisis they need to weather. Despite fewer or no patients and limited customer interactions, these businesses would be more focused on remaining competitive post-COVID-19. They would probably undergo restructuring and observe industry developments closely so they can reformat their business strategy, improve health and hygiene protocols, retrain personnel, and explore new markets.
COVID-19’s effects on industry events
The ITB Berlin 2020 is probably the single biggest travel trade show that had to be canceled this year, although thousands of events had to be shelved or rescheduled worldwide.
National restrictions on public gatherings and the painfully slow reopening of international travel continue to affect medical travel and tourism events and the travel and tourism sector in general.
Most event organizers who have opted to push through with their planned events have either downsized them, including the venue and number of attendees, or have gone digital. Many opted to go online, with several virtual events already scheduled for the latter part of the year.
Medical travel and tourism post-COVID-19
Once the new normal is established and there’s already a global consensus regarding the safety of international travel, a few changes are expected to take place.
Flight and accommodation costs may be reduced for different industry players to remain competitive. Treatment costs and other related medical travel services are likely to follow a similar trend.
Patients can take advantage of more affordable travel and treatment costs at the early stages. However, it would be advisable to have life insurance coverage as a precaution not only against COVID-19 but also for protection against unforeseen complications.
It’s also expected that during the first phase of medical travel and tourism activity, patients will not only enjoy better prices but also receive prompt treatment.
Initially, patients would go to destinations considered “safer” or those countries that have had exemplary COVID-19 management and containment records.
At any rate, while everyone eagerly awaits the eradication or efficient management of COVID-19, medical travel and tourism service providers need to continue investing in marketing to maintain their industry presence. Government support and policies will also play a crucial role in ensuring that their countries stay competitive in the medical travel and tourism arena.
Jonathon Deakins is a digital marketing consultant who works with brands to develop and produce results from quantitative research on Australian consumer behaviour.