Medical tourism looks sick while patients watch their spending

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Attila Nott has an empty dental hospital in Hungary.

Foreigners with bad teeth he relied never arrived, deterred first by coronavirus and now by a cost-of-living crisis that has left the medical tourism industry struggling to recover even after pandemic travel restrictions are lifted.

“People are more careful,” Nutt told Reuters. “They think twice before spending a lot of money all at once on something like dental treatment.”

The businessman aimed to open the new facility in March 2020 to serve more patients seeking procedures in Hungary at a cheaper rate than at home.

Now, with the number of patients down in half from about 600 a month before COVID hit, he’s considering branching out to colonoscopies and knee replacements.

For years, traveling abroad to clinics in countries such as Hungary and Turkey was an option for British and North American patients facing long waiting times, high costs, or both for dental and medical procedures at home.

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Operators had hoped for a quick rebound after travel restrictions were lifted.

But inflation caused by soaring energy and food prices since the Ukraine war broke out a year ago has left people with little money to spare, especially for plastic surgery.

Nott said the war in Hungary, which borders Ukraine, is worrying foreigners.

Clinic operators and analysts told Reuters that higher airfares and fewer flights — and remembering the travel chaos of last summer — are putting potential patients off.

For some trips, such as trips to Turkey, airfare can be double what it was in 2019, according to WeCure, which specializes in medical tourism to large centers like Turkey from countries like Britain.

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WeCure said flights, ground transfers and petrol now account for about 15% of the cost of travel and treatment packages, almost double the proportion before COVID, putting upward pressure on overall prices.

Some clinics, faced with their own high costs, have raised fees. The clinic told Reuters that hip or knee replacements at Nordorthopedics in Lithuania are 15% more expensive now than they were five years ago.

“There will be some trade-offs (for customers),” WeCure CEO Emre Atceken said. “Instead of having a hair transplant. I’d rather pay the gas bills. I’d rather pay the electric bills.”

credit procedures

To encourage clients, some clinic operators offer pay-as-you-go options, while crowdfunding has emerged as another source of support.

Atceken said WeCure is offering some customers to pay in installments to extend the cost.

Lyfboat, an Indian company that provides medical services to foreign patients, told Reuters that it has teamed up with a fundraising platform called ImpactGuru to help patients pay for essential surgeries.

Some operators are targeting patients from Britain and Canada, where strained public healthcare services can lead to long delays.

Nott said most of his patients are from Britain and Iceland, with smaller numbers coming from other Nordic countries and France.

Linda Frohawk, 73, from Staffordshire, said she postponed retirement, took out a bank loan and used savings to travel to Budapest for dental implants.

She paid £8,000 instead of the £32,000 the operation would have cost in Britain.

“If it’s an emergency and only here can do it, then I wanted them to do it. Somehow you just have to find what you need,” she said.

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acute versus elective

The international medical travel journal, published by market intelligence service LaingBuisson, estimates that the medical tourism market is currently worth about $21 billion, less than before the pandemic, though editor Keith Pollard cautions that the data is weak.

With about 7 million medical travelers a year, IMTJ sees a realistic 5%-10% annual growth – well below some projections.

Laszlo Boczko, who runs Budapest-based Health Tourism Worldwide, said clinics specializing in urgent procedures will weather the economic climate as clients feel the financial straits will pay for themselves. He and others said those who competed on the price of elective treatments like rhinoplasty would have a hard time surviving.

“Orthopedics is something you can’t put off if you have severe arthritis and can’t walk. It’s a major surgery that will change your life,” said Vilius Sketrys, who manages sales and marketing for Nordorthopaedics.

Bob Martin, 71, decided to shell out about 18,000 pounds for new dental implants at Kreativ. A retired NHS Nurse Manager from Britain, Martin’s adult teeth never showed and he struggled for most of his life with dentures.

“If I need work done, what option do I have?” He said.

Kreativ’s Nott said patients who need vital dental work will move forward, whatever the cost.

“These people usually don’t negotiate. They sign whatever we put in front of their nose.”

(Reporting by Joanna Plosinska); Editing by Catherine Evans

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