Fatigued from unrelenting austerity and high unemployment, Portuguese healthcare and government leaders have turned to the medical tourism industry to energize their country’s weary economy.
Healthcare providers and hospitality professionals joined with the Medical Tourism Association® recently at a workshop in Lisbon to leverage government strategies aimed at creating health clusters and “free zones,” new initiatives national officials believe can make Portugal a prime destination for medical tourism.
Renée-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association®, said medical tourism has raised the level of healthcare standards globally while providing services for patients around the world. She said health tourism clusters are far from unique, but rather a foreign idea in which designated free zones are taxed very lightly or not at all in an effort to stimulate national economic activity.
“Medical tourism is both a global and regional industry,” said Stephano, who led a contingent of speakers from the Medical Tourism Association® at a daylong workshop on “Medical Tourism Marketing and the World Health,” this summer at the Hotel Vila Gale Ópera, in Lisbon, Portugal. “Many healthcare leaders in the private and public sectors who have long thought about the global opportunities of medical tourism are now recognizing low-lying fruit in regional markets as well.”
Health Tourism Clusters
Speakers from the Medical Tourism Association® addressed public/private partnerships, improving quality of care, healthcare reform and conditions, stakeholders and leveraging strategies for developing health tourism clusters.
Stephano said medical tourism clusters have established footing in some 80 countries worldwide, boosting local efforts to create jobs, develop medical infrastructure, educate healthcare professionals, and provide enhanced procedures and treatments to regional communities. She said successful public/private partnerships require significant planning, organization and strategic execution based on affordability, quality and patient perceptions of targeted destinations in order to achieve long-term goals.
European patients have often sidestepped heavily congested healthcare systems in their own countries to instead cross borders for surgeries in neighboring countries, like Turkey, where government officials recently announced an initiative to create “health free zones” designed to attract foreign investment by promising minimal red tape. The government predicts these efforts will double the number of medical tourism patients to a half million in the next two years.
“It is essential to invest in Portugal, with a strategic, competitive advantages that presents as a country,” said Paulo Moreira, director of the International Journal of Healthcare Management, which co-sponsored the workshop. “Different variables put (Portugal) in a market position of excellence in the field of tourism health. We have the professionals, infrastructure and equipment and innovation needed. What remains, without doubt, is a strategy that will help us to position and put Portugal on the map as a reference country for tourism health.”
Foundation to Build Upon
Portugal, where Moreira is evaluating the prospects of launching an MTA Chapter to drive the further regional development of health tourism, stands out among neighboring nations for its infrastructure, transport, technology in the deliver of healthcare, quality and competitive prices. Still, the country has little history in the international arena and stands to suffer in pursuit of potential revenue generated by regional directives that promote the movement of European patients from one border to another.
Most countries in the European Union offer universal health coverage to their citizens, meaning when one patient travels to or lives in another member country, they also are medically insured. The EU is under increasing pressure to establish an open healthcare market where member nation patients have the right to seek the quickest and best treatment anywhere in the EU.
Portugal, mired in recession for the last 10 quarters, recently saw its unemployment rate fall for the first time in years to 16.4 percent from a record 17.7 percent, the National Statistics Institute reported. Facing mounting debt, Portugal needed some 78 billion euros – or $104 billion – loan bailout in 2011 from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund following a decade of weak growth that pushed the nation close to bankruptcy.
NSI didn’t provide reasons for the drop, but the summer vacation season often brings more job openings. The biggest regional drop – 3.6 percent — came in the Algarve, one of Europe’s prime medical tourism destinations, where patients seek treatments and procedures at resort wellness spas and hotels.
A team from the Medical Tourism Association® recently concluded workshops in the republics of Georgia and Armenia, and in Mexico, with more to come by year’s end.
Armenia finalized negotiations earlier this month on a free-trade deal with the European Union, bringing the republic within reach of formalizing closer ties with the trade association. EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said that access to the EU market would help Armenia “strengthen its exports, increase investment and sustain growth.”
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The EU plans to authorize the deal with Armenia, which stands to gain $193 million annually, in November, at an Eastern Partnership summit, in Lithuania, where the republics of Georgia and Moldova are also expected to achieve similar status.
The Medical Tourism Association®, U.S.-based nonprofit, member-driven organization, builds consumer awareness of international healthcare options through outreach efforts at conventions and conferences in the United States and across the globe and with initiatives including its Health & Wellness Destination Guides, Medical Tourism Magazine, annual World Medical Tourism and Global Healthcare Congress, numerous partnership and networking activities, online education and certification programs, and top-rated Internet portal for healthcare consumers, http://www.medicaltourism.com among others.
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MTA has spent several years developing a comprehensive and diverse curriculum of medical tourism training courses, certification programs and continuing education to support industry initiatives.