Lithuania took a major step towards becoming a world leader in the global medical tourism industry when the Ministry of Economy for the Republic of Lithuania penned an agreement with the Medical Tourism Association™ (MTA) to develop and promote medical tourism in the Baltic nation during the 2011 World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress (WMT & GHC).
Based upon this partnership, Daumantas Lapinskas - the Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Economy for the Republic of Lithuania - invited the president of the MTA - Ms. Renée-Marie Stephano - to act as the keynote speaker during their 2012 International Conference for Medical Tourism (ICMT) – “The Future of Services in Lithuania.” By signing this agreement, Lapinskas said, “Lithuania is keeping pace in getting benefits from this emerging market and that the agreement gives a high potential to attract a larger audience of medical tourists to the country.”
This past February, leaders throughout the health and wellness industry convened at the International Conference for Medical Tourism in order to reach a consensus on medical tourism initiatives as well as to identify areas which they can market their products. A large number of participants from public institutions, NGOs, academic society and private sector participated at the event.
“We believe that this conference will contribute significantly towards further development of medical tourism in Lithuania. The participants have adopted a resolution and agreed on the importance and future potential of this branch of tourism,” said Lidija Bajaruniene, chief officer of Tourism Policy Division, Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Lithuania.
The MTA was commissioned by the Lithuanian government to offer guidance and resources/support for education, certification, and destination branding programs. However, the matter at the heart of the ICMT this year was the subject of Clusterization (i.e. Healthcare Clusters).
A (business) cluster is a geographic or regional concentration of interconnected business, suppliers, providers and associated institutions in a particular industry or field (i.e. medical tourism). Clusters are considered to increase the productivity with which companies can complement, compete or work together nationally and globally. Stephano states that, “Cluster business and economies are not only profitable and strategically positioned for the region they are in; they also support surrounding and global economies/industries.”
Tourism management institutions – as well as tourism/medical tourism associations and organizations – collaborate to approve destination country tour operators, hotel networks, spas and healthcare facilities which will work together to develop a healthcare cluster.
The recently conducted feasibility study for the Lithuanian medical and health tourism development and export promotion services has shown that the most efficient way to promote health and medical tourism in Lithuania is by joining the efforts and activities of all interested parties towards a common goal – to promote Lithuania as a Baltic-Nordic destination for medical tourism.
Lithuania is setting up a healthcare cluster through the support of the Ministry of Economy and Enterprise Lithuania, the export organization for the country.
Why the healthcare cluster has potential:
It is expected that the Lithuanian Medical Tourism Association will be in charge of the development of the medical tourism cluster, by unifying major organizations that are interested in the development of the sector, such as, private and public healthcare and wellness providers and other companies (hotels, restaurants, tour operators, travel agencies, transport providers, education institutions, etc.). The Ministry of Economy, Enterprise Lithuania, the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism and an outsourced cluster management institution will act on strategic, tactical and operational cluster management levels, respectively.
“Although it will not be an easy task to create an effective cluster, since it is a new concept in Lithuania, we hope that a strong common vision and the synergy effect of cooperated activities will make the effort successful. In short, the medical cluster should positively influence the development of medical tourism in Lithuania,” said Bajaruniene.
Tourism is a rapidly growing industry of primary importance in Lithuania. In 2010 - the latest year for which data is available - tourism accounted for 4.4 percent of Lithuania’s GDP. In 2010, tourism exports accounted for 25 percent of the total services exports’ value.
Health tourism is among the top four priorities in the development of tourism in Lithuania (along with cultural, active leisure and conference tourism), according to the National Tourism Development Programme for 2010-2013.
The Programme focuses on sustainability issues and on the need for collaboration between the tourism industry and the government. Tourism is subject to major seasonal variations and sustainability is a key aspect in sector’s planning.
“We believe that medical tourism will help to reduce seasonal fluctuations affecting the Lithuanian tourism sector and will also help to create new jobs, and to increase overall exports of services,” explained Bajaruniene.
Lithuania has many possibilities to develop the exports of health tourism services. The country is characterized as a provider of accessible, high quality, safe and reasonably-priced health care services. Natural resources (mineral water, sea water, mud) create the conditions for exclusive possibilities of development of health tourism.
There are around 30 health and wellness centers in Lithuania. The cities of Palanga, Birštonas, Neringa and Druskininkai are the main health resorts. They offer a variety of modern spa and wellness centers of the highest standards and a number of unique treatments and therapies. In 2009 SPA Vilnius SANA, located in Druskininkai, was awarded with EUROPESPA medical quality certificate - as the best health center in Eastern Europe by ESPA (European Spas Association).
An increasing number of private and public healthcare providers are focused on the development of medical tourism activities. Many of them have introduced a quality management system complying with international standards. In order to ensure the country’s ability to compete in the international market and also to attract the tourists from the well developed countries, it is important to guarantee high quality standards of health tourism and to set up the qualification requirements for the specialists. In consideration of above, the Law on Tourism was amended adding a new chapter on health tourism. At the same time, a governmental support will be available for enterprises willing to introduce international healthcare quality standards.
Due to the geographical, linguistic and cultural proximity, Lithuania is more accessible to Eastern markets than some of its competitors. Lithuania has more physicians and a greater number of hospital beds than most of the EU or other competing countries; thus, Lithuania has a potential to accommodate significant flows of medical tourists - if the available resources are used efficiently and are adapted to the requirements of healthcare services exports.
In terms of health services, Lithuania is renowned for their medical tourism in the fields of: cardiology, aesthetics, dentistry, oncology, stem-cell research/treatment, wellness, as well as spa and post-procedure recovery services. Lithuania also requires all of their healthcare professionals have a medical degree and foreign language skills – language skills that helps to make medical tourists more comfortable with the procedure they are undergoing. Additionally, Lithuania recently signed a joint purchasing agreement which reduces drug prices in 2012, making the nation’s quality health services even less expensive than they already are. Another interesting fact is that the World Health Organization (WHO) lists that Lithuania currently has 36 physicians for every ten-thousand citizens; this is 25 percent more physicians (per capita) than what the United States currently has (i.e. 27 physicians per ten-thousand citizens).
The Programme also includes public relations and marketing activities to promote Lithuania as an attractive health tourism destination. Lithuanian State Department of Tourism promotes medical, spa and wellness tourism during workshops, international tourism exhibitions and other business to business events. In addition, every year the department publishes updated brochures on spa and wellness tourism in Lithuania in 11 languages, which are widely distributed. Brochures and detailed information are also available online and in a digital format.
The medical tourism cluster will be developed in order to pool and efficiently use these available resources to implement common marketing principles, to ensure and enhance the quality of the services as well as to promote cooperation.
“The cluster development is among the priority activities of the Tourism Policy Division at the Ministry of Economy,” said Bajaruniene.
Enterprise Lithuania is a well-known and trusted institution responsible for promoting the country’ s producers exports as well as supporting small and mid-sized businesses. The support for national healthcare businesses is one of top priorities in the Lithuanian export development. The agency fosters relations between the Lithuanian and international medical business communities by organizing participation at international tourism and medical trade fairs, as well as by arranging outgoing trade missions or providing foreign interest groups with information on Lithuanian healthcare and wellness providers and their services.
Enterprise Lithuania is particularly focused on those countries that were indicated as primary markets by the recent feasibility study. The agency combines the findings of the study with the needs indicated by the local medical service providers in order help the sector achieve great and long lasting results.
Moreover, Enterprise Lithuania plans to participate, as a coordinator, in founding the first healthcare cluster in Lithuania.
Many experts agree that Lithuania has a few hurdles to overcome in order to insure the success of their medical tourism initiative.
The mass emigration of medical professionals leaving Lithuania is quite a concern (i.e. Germany is hiring without experience requisite). There are many things that the government can do to stem the tide of qualified workers leaving the country. Lithuanians need to earn more competitive salaries and have better work schedules.
It would also behoove the government to provide their working citizens with some form of social assurance. It would be in the Lithuanian government’s best interest to provide its citizens with more foreign language skills (free of charge).
But what else can Lithuania do to help medical tourism flourish? For starters, the Lithuanian government needs to reduce the amount of bureaucratic “Red Tape” in the medical tourism industry. For instance, the ratio of private inpatient beds to all beds is lower than any other country in the European Union – 69 times lower, according to the WHO-EU report. Since most medical tourism will result in inpatient surgical care that takes place in private facilities, capacity of those facilities is vital to the success of medical tourism. The government can begin by easing bureaucratic restrictions that have inhibited investors from building new hospitals and other medical facilities. The government can also ease restrictions on immigration and by providing better visa access to professionals in the medical field.
The Lithuanian government should invest in properly training and certifying the staffs of their hotels/resorts in order to better accommodate medical tourists – this includes training and certifying tour operators as well. It would also be in the best interest of the government to create a centralized system that can assist in communicating with patients both home and abroad.
There is no doubt that these are exciting times for Lithuania as well as medical tourism as a whole. Given Lithuania’s rich history and centralized location, the potential for success in the medical tourism industry is ripe for the taking. If the government can address the concerns discussed here and capitalize on the successes that already exist, Lithuania has the potential to become a leader in the medical tourism industry in Europe.
Renée-Marie Stephano is the President of the Medical Tourism Association™. Ms. Stephano is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Medical Tourism Magazine, Health Tourism Magazine and Healthcare Development Magazine. Having a background in international marketing and relations, health law and litigation, she provides a valuable service to the Medical Tourism Association™ in these fields. She may be reached at Renee@MedicalTourismAssociation.com.
Tourism Policy Division- Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Lithuania