Mideast Countries Compete for Medical Tourists

Some people come to the region for more than just the sun, surf or exquisite history.

‘Complete care in English and in Russian.’ Israel’s Sheba Media Center (photo credit: SHEBA MEDICAL CENTER)
‘Complete care in English and in Russian.’ Israel’s Sheba Media Center
(photo credit: SHEBA MEDICAL CENTER)
The newest regional rivalry in the Middle East has nothing to do with politics or diplomacy.
Countries in the region are competing against each other and against nations farther afield to attract medical tourists. While the industry has been hit by the novel coronavirus, some countries are planning for a post-pandemic future.
Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center, based Jerusalem, is contemplating a branch in Dubai following this month’s signing of the Abraham Accords, which established official ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
“We do think differently,” Prof. Ze’ev Rotstein, director general of Hadassah Medical Organization, told The Media Line. “Maybe [that’s] because of the years that the public medical system [in Israel] was starved, and they [the UAE] very much like the way we think.”
Expanding abroad is not Rotstein’s top priority. Hadassah already has a branch in Moscow that focuses on cancer. It has also received requests to open branches in Mexico and elsewhere.
“My wish is to build the almighty Hadassah here in Jerusalem for the people of Israel, and not to compensate [with] something that may be more lucrative [abroad],” he said.
Prof. Zeev Rotstein, director general of Hadassah Medical Organization. (Avi Hayun)Prof. Zeev Rotstein, director general of Hadassah Medical Organization. (Avi Hayun)
Nonetheless, Hadassah, according to Rotstein, has had “very good discussions about a potential joint venture in the future. [There is this] fantastic feeling [of being at] the beginning of something, and we need to continue.”
Israeli doctors and medical researchers are highly regarded in other countries, and foreigners come to the Jewish state for its medical expertise.
Sheba Tel Hashomer Medical Center, Israel’s largest hospital complex, is also trying to lure medical tourists to its Ramat Gan campus outside Tel Aviv.
Yulia Yusim, senior marketing coordinator for Sheba’s international medical tourism division, says that most of its international patients come for care in hemato-oncology, oncology or cardiology.
“We offer complete care in English and in Russian, and provide translation services,” she told The Media Line. “Each patient is assigned a dedicated coordinator who serves as a first point of contact during their time at Sheba.”
According to the Booking Health blog, Israel generates $500 million annually from medical tourism, and 80% of its foreign patients seek oncology-related treatment.
Yusim says that when it comes to medical tourism, Israel competes mostly with Europe.
Next door to Israel, Jordan has a booming market. Normally, it receives an average of more than 250,000 foreign patients per year, according to Dr. Fawzi Al-Hammouri, chairman of the Private Hospitals Association Jordan.
Most of these patients come from other Arab lands, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, he said. The most sought after treatments include those in cardiology, bariatric surgery and orthopedics.
“Jordan’s strength lies in the high quality of its healthcare services, which are based on highly qualified physicians, nurses, pharmacists and medical engineers, [and on the] competitive cost of medical services,” Hammouri told The Media Line.
“Availability of well-equipped hospitals and advanced medical equipment leads to no waiting time,” he added.
Jordan also plans to start offering dental care and assisted-living services for foreigners. Its main competitor is Turkey, which also boasts a robust health-care tourism industry.
Turkey's customers come mainly from Russia, eastern and southern Europe, andMiddle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, says Hamim Moshtaghian, co-founder and chief executive officer of ElCid Turismo España, a Barcelona- based travel agency that offers medical and other custom tours in the Middle East.
The health procedures for which he sees the most demand are hair transplants and other types of plastic surgery, he told The Media Line, adding that patients like Turkey’s low prices and vacation spots, as well as its convenient location
between Europe and Asia. “The costs of these surgeries are usually a third of what clinics in Europe offer to their patients. Moreover, Turkey's quality of service is relatively high,” Moshtaghian said.
“Hence, people prefer to buy tickets, reserve hotels and do these surgeries in Turkey instead of their own city in Europe or even Arab countries,” he said, adding that Europeans often view Turkey as safer than the rest of the Middle East.
Turkey’s chief rivals for international patients include India, South Korea and Bulgaria.
“Each country has its own characteristics. The treatment costs in Turkey are way lower than [in] Bulgaria. People from East Asia prefer India to countries like Turkey,” he said.
Dr. Murat Ustun, lead bariatric surgeon at the Istanbul Bariatric Center and founder of Fly to Cure Healthcare Ltd., a UK medical tourism company, told The Media Line that most of the people who travel to his clinic from abroad are Western European residents, mainly from the UK, Germany and France. He also sees patients from Qatar and Kuwait.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, he believes that the future of medical tourism in Turkey is bright.
“COVID-19 and travel bans have dramatically decreased the numbers,” he said. “But personally, I'm very optimistic about health tourism in Turkey because of the high standards of [the] hospitals and other facilities, and [the] highly experienced surgeons.”
Paradoxically, some of Turkey’s economic woes are a boon to the health tourism sector.
“The deep [foreign currency] exchange crisis helps,” he said, alluding to the Turkish lira, which declined to record lows against the US dollar this month.