Health & Fitness: Cillian Donnelly investigates rising rates of medical tourism.
‘Medical tourism’ is on the rise across Europe. As the term implies, this is the practice of travelling abroad for access to medical services, and Belgium’s facilities score very highly in this regard.
The country is seen as one of Europe’s top locations for good, affordable medical care. According to the Medical Tourism Review, Belgium “with its location at
the heart of the EU, benefits from easy access which, combined with its highly professional private healthcare system, makes it an attractive option for medical travel”.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the reviews are just as good. Belgium is considered to be at the “forefront of medical tourism” by the US-based WorldMed Assist, which offers not only advice on travelling to Belgium, but also presents a brief history and cultural outline of the country on its website.
But there is more to medical tourism than just healthcare. Many observers believe that the practice can also add to the local economy, and this concept has been under development for some time now. “When a person comes to Europe for a medical procedure, he doesn’t travel alone,” Professor Jacques Brotchi, Chief of the Neurology Department at Erasme Hospital, told the European Business Summit in 2007. “He comes with someone else, stays in a hotel, and when he begins to feel better, he goes shopping.”
That same year saw the formation of Healthcare Belgium, www.healthcarebelgium.com, an organisation that aims to attract cross-border patients to the country. But the ambition doesn’t stop there. Healthcare Belgium is also developing tele-medicine (defined as the long- distance treatment of patients abroad) and e-health markets, with the dual aim of creating jobs and growth at home, and promoting Belgian expertise and innovation abroad.
Speaking a year on, Healthcare Belgium General Manager Falk Beerten told Together that the organisation focuses on a combination of advanced medical technology and superior medical expertise. Belgium, he says, currently has the problem of an ageing population.
“We need to create around 500,000 new jobs over the next few years to fill this gap. And some of the new opportunities that we are working on, with the co-operation of the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (VBO-FEB), involve things such as the construction and service industries. It soon became clear that we could create jobs in the services sector.”
The VBO-FEB, Beerten continues, went further, realising that there was a certain strength to be exploited in the medical services sector. “We realised we have lots of expertise and capacity here. We came to realise that we had the ability to treat an extra 50,000 patients per year within our system. We had the beds, and so we needed people from abroad to fill them.”
But, Beerten insists, this is not a simple case of exploitation, and Healthcare Belgium is keen to stress that it has examined all the angles and potential problems inherent to such a massive undertaking.
“The healthcare sector is broad,” Beerten admits, “and you have to be careful about what you do with it. We want an influx of foreign patients, yes, but we do not want waiting lists.”
Organisation and co-ordination between partners is key to a successful project, Beerten continues. As well as the Federation of Belgian Enterprises, Healthcare Belgium also works in conjunction with AFGA Healthcare, 11 hospital groups and Dexia Bank. They are currently working on promoting the Belgian healthcare system overseas, through ‘economic missions’ and insurance companies.
Currently, Healthcare Belgium accounts for 22-23 percent of all hospital capacity in Belgium, but the scope of the project goes wider. “We want to train local doctors abroad and transfer Belgian competencies to other places,” says Beerten. “It is our ambition to attract more patients to Belgium, and create more jobs for the country.
“We are not just targeting places such as the Middle East and Russia. In Belgium, too, there are new markets. We aim to provide medical solutions for embassy staff. There are hundreds of people working there, but no one offering solutions to them when they have a medical problem. We can help them.”