The Trump Era – A Bitter Pill For America’s Medical Tourism?

By Melissa Quackenbush, Regional Director for the Health + Wellness Practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies , 16 March 2017

It comes as no surprise that the recent election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States is sending shockwaves around the globe, especially in the Middle East region.

With President Trump, who vocally campaigned with a protectionist ideology, enforcing a ban against citizens from several Arab countries from entering the US, it has raised questions amongst local healthcare organisations of the long-lasting impact this will have on outbound medical tourism in the Middle East.

Until now, tourists from the Middle East represented a large proportion of the American tourism market, with 2.6 million tourists visiting the US in 2014. That includes Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Turkey; countries not covered by Trump's travel ban. As expected, these numbers have collapsed after the ban.According to the ForwardKeys analysis, bookings in the Middle East fell by 37.5 percent and specifically fell by 80 percent in the seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) directly affected by the ban.

There is a fear that not only tourists from the Muslim countries, but also individuals from around the world may no longer feel welcome. Whether the psychological effect of the travel ban has a short or long-term duration will all depend on future policies.

With this effect on general tourism, there is no doubt going to be a knock-on effect for medical tourism too. In a recent interview which appeared on Chicago Business, Tricia Johnson, an economist at Rush University Medical Centre and director of the Centre for Health Management & Policy Research at Rush University, reports that the Middle East is the top source of patients who travel to the US for medical care. She added that if you have ever been inside John Hopkins or Cleveland Clinic's International reception centre, the nationalities outlined in the banconstitute a significant share of their medical tourism business.

According to the International Medical Travel Journal, at least 500,000 overseas patients a year seek treatment in the USA. It is not surprising that with North America’s world-leading centres such as Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins Hospital and Cleveland Clinic, the U.S. has been an attractive option for many GCC residents as it offers quality and specialised services, which are lacking in their home countries. The International Medical Travel Journal states that over 30,000 Emiratis travel abroad for medical treatment every year, spending an average of US$250,000 per visit. In Dubai alone, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) spent AED 307 million towards overseas treatment for its citizens. In the GCC, 45% of the cases are patients seeking specialised treatments in oncology, cardiology and orthopaedics due to the existing gap in specialised care currently available in the country.

During this year’s Arab Health Exhibition & Congress, Dr. Nizar Zein, Chairman of Global Patient Services from Cleveland Clinic, who has a satellite clinic based in Abu Dhabi, raised his concerns over the implications the travel ban may have on attracting patients from the Middle East. “Even if there is no direct problem with the visa process, the tone of the current US administration is not seen in a favourable way abroad, at least for patients and individuals who want to travel to the US, so I have no doubt it will have an impact.”

“I hope this impact will be minimal and I hope that we can show significantly higher level of empathy to our fellow human beings abroad more than what the US administration has been able to show in the last week or two. I want to reassure patients and individuals that if you do come, we will take care of you equally as we have done before and we will always will be conscious of your safety and emotional needs,” says Dr Zein.

As facilities in other parts of the world establish themselves as global centres of caring, such as in the UK, Germany and Singapore, patients may now be tempted to avoid the US and seek medical treatments in these alternative medical tourism destinations. For example, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH) in London currently welcomes over 1,500 children from the Middle East every year. Over the next few months, it will be interesting to see if numbers from the Middle East increase for hospitals such as GOSH due to President Trump’s travel ban.

One positive outcome of the ban on the region is how it might benefit the UAE’s medical tourism industry. The UAE has already experienced significant progress in attracting medical tourists from across the globe, with some officials dubbing it as the world’s fastest growing medical tourism hub. This poses an opportunity for the UAE, which could become the attractive new option patients from this region have been looking for. In a recent interview with Gulf Newsat this year’s Arab Health, Dr Laila Al Marzouqi, director of Dubai Medical Tourism Project, commented that, “In 2015-2016, Orthopaedics, Dental, Ophthalmology and In Vitro Fertilisation attracted a lot of interest from health tourists. More than Dh 1 billion was made in medical tourism revenues. The annual revenue from medical tourism is slated to increase by 13 per cent every year for the next five years.”

With hospitals in Europe and Asia, and now increasingly in the UAE, being seen as easier and more attractive medical destinations for patients from the GCC, the world is watching to see how President Trump will re-build confidence in the American health system for Middle Eastern patients.