Inbound Medical Tourism in London: beyond Harley Street.
7th March 2017
A series of fortunate coincidences led me to start a research about the Inbound Medical Tourism in London. Almost two years ago the BBC broadcast a series called “Inside Harley Street”. At that time, I found all the episodes particularly entertaining but I never thought a TV series would have inspired my dissertation a few months later. Medicine is a fascinating world but its relation to tourism was something I had never considered before. A couple of months later I passed by Harley Street which is just a few blocks away from the University of Westminster. The number of clinics and hospitals in such a small area is remarkable. Later in November 2016, we were asked to submit our dissertation topic. The Lecturers stressed the importance of choosing an original subject and adopting innovative research methods. Harley Street crossed my mind again and gave me the hint to read a great amount of bibliography concerning medical travel.
Since the 20th century, London stood out in medical care for offering highly complex and specialised health services. This has favoured a flow of international patients that choose London amongst other international destinations for different motivations. Despite its longevity and prestige, medical tourism in London has rarely been the focus of attention of previous research.
Setting the objectives of my research was a natural step: the project would have assessed the characteristics of the London inbound medical tourism and evaluated its growth potential. To accomplish my goals I divided the research into three main areas: analysis of the demand, examine the marketing approaches used by the supply and the support of Destination Marketing Organisations, present recommendations and suggestions to develop the London inbound medical tourism to achieve its full potential.
I identified semi-structured interviews and content analysis as the most appropriate research tools. I contacted London hospitals, private clinics, private divisions of the NHS hospitals, medical concierge companies, international medical offices, DMOs, medical tourism platforms and associations. After a long and arduous negotiation process, I succeeded in conducting six interviews. Despite being small, the sample allowed me to explore the perspective of different highly qualified professionals operating in the London medical tourism at various levels. I then integrated the information obtained with the semi-structure interviews with the content analysis. This was particularly helpful when assessing the online exposure of different medical destinations and gathering information regarding the marketing strategies.
The findings of my research clearly show that the medical tourism the city is able to attract is an exclusive market with peculiar characteristics. London is the only medical hub in the world that has the highest concentration of medical professionals in a radius of few miles. This characteristic contributes to its uniqueness and attracts not only the most renowned medical professionals in the world but also an upper-class market seeking highly specialised and technological medical care. It is essential to reinforce the London brand as a medical tourism hub. British medicine holds prestige internationally; however, the lack of a leadership prevents the city from reaching its full potential and increasing awareness worldwide. It also emerged clearly that the Middle East is one of the main markets that has developed since the seventies and that has preponderantly caught the attention of the medical supply. Middle Eastern patients are less price-sensitive, they often require complex care which is sponsored by their own governments and their stay tends to be longer than other international visitors. It is likely that the extended permanence allows the medical tourists to engage in other activities generating a conspicuous economic impact.
The London medical supply is a robust sector that holds a distinguished reputation. The range of health services offered is extensive and diverse. Different intermediaries, especially, medical concierge companies, help international patients to navigate the UK health system and ease the travel arrangements. Many of those offer services oriented to the wealthiest clientele. The medical supply is at the moment working individually; there is no real cooperation between the government, hospital groups, intermediaries and the travel industry. This lack of communication between sectors does not help the formulation of a coherent image of London as a medical tourism hub.
London’s main competitors are Germany, the USA and South Korea. These countries promote medical services as a part of a tourism experience and offer a vast range of travel arrangement for foreign visitors. They have also identified the potential of emerging markets like Russia and China and target their needs specifically.
Although the London medical tourism has the premises to gain a privileged position in the international scenario there is room for improvement; some actions could encourage the sector and help to face the aggressive competition of other destinations.
It would be desirable for the London medical supply to establish an advantageous synergy with the Travel industry to offer tailor-made services and be more responsive to the clientele needs. Packages that combine medical care, flight and convalescence in the hotel nearby could be oriented particularly to the self-paying market, that has recently grown but it is not marketed as pointedly as the Middle Eastern one. The DMOs could conduct an exploratory study to investigate the volume and the potential of medical tourism as they do with other niche sectors. The creation of a medical tourism platform would be also advantageous to attract all the stakeholders operating in the industry. It is crucial to brand the uniqueness of London as a medical tourism pivot; no other destinations in the world developed a concentration of first-rate medical care in a similar way and this aspect needs to be emphasised in the marketing campaigns.
Nowadays, tourism faces many challenges: global standardisation, political conditions and security are just some of the threats that cause a decrease in demand. It is essential to shed the light on those sectors and markets that seem to be less affected by political instability and economic fluctuations. London already holds a privileged position in the international scenario with its rich and varied tourism offer; medical tourism with its exclusive and unique services could become the spearhead of the tourism industry.