Medical Travel Programs Must Rethink Strategies in Response to the COVID-19 Crisis

April 10, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed life as we know it. Healthcare provision, travel, the economy and social norms have all changed drastically in what seems like the blink of an eye. Like most industries, medical travel has been hit hard. Fear of contracting the virus – particularly in a hospital setting, lack of healthcare capacity, travel bans, and economic hardship don’t exactly make it easy for patients to seek elective treatments at home, much less in other regions or countries.

For most healthcare providers targeting medical travel patients, your entire business model has been upended or, at least, seriously impacted by the coronavirus as it continues to rage across the globe. How severely, will depend on your location, who you are targeting and your country’s or region’s preparedness and response to the pandemic. Presently, there are healthcare providers who have had to cancel all elective procedures, in order to obtain greater bed capacity or mitigate the spread of the virus,  while others are still receiving limited medical travel patient volume from certain countries, following  a period of quarantine. Others may be forced to shut down – particularly smaller independent clinics who focus exclusively on the medical travel market.

While the situation in many parts of the world continues to look bleak, we can be sure that this too shall pass. Already there are signs that the coronavirus has hit its peak in certain regions and several countries have begun to reduce social distancing restrictions and slowly return to a semblance of normalcy. Each day there is news of promising therapies or potential vaccines that in the short to medium term, may be able to effectively treat the virus or mitigate it more fully.

We know that sooner or later life and business will go on, though perhaps, not exactly as before. With this in mind, medical travel programs must make intentional decisions and take deliberate actions during this crisis with recovery in mind. You should start preparing now to ensure your organization is in the best position to succeed in the post-Covid-19 world. The following strategies may be helpful to reach this objective.

  • Communicate with your customers

While COVID-19 poses a serious threat to human safety and is disrupting social norms and many industries, it also offers us the opportunity to connect and engage with medical travel patients – both past, present and those who may have had their procedures postponed or cancelled. We can provide them with important information to help them and their families keep safe during this crisis and also inform them about the steps your hospital or clinic is taking to keep them safe during their stay or future visit. You can also provide information relevant to their condition to assist in maintaining their health during the delay of treatment or additional information on wellness.

Additionally, while it may not be a top priority at the moment, there will come a time when the pandemic runs its course and it will make sense to update medical travelers, facilitators and payers on the status of your medical travel program.  Personalizing your organization’s experience with the pandemic can serve as a way to connect with medical travel patients, providers and payers once the crisis has passed.

  • Assess and adapt medical travel program policies and protocols as necessary

Requiring proof of a 14-day quarantine prior to admission, establishing new screening criteria, using telehealth to diagnose and or assess patients, implementing social distancing policies for in-country medical travelers and postponing/cancelling medical procedures are just some examples of policies or protocols that may need to be implemented during the crisis to ensure the safety of patients and staff. Many may be corporate policies from hospital or clinic management that are applicable to all patients, while others may be specific to your medical travel program. The important thing is to communicate any new or updated policies to your traveling patient populations through the appropriate communication channels and in a timely fashion.

  • Anticipate and monitor impact of Covid-19 on medical travel program operations

It is safe to say that most hospitals and clinics around the globe have been, are or will be impacted by Covid-19. If so, your medical travel program may be experiencing issues that will affect daily operations. This may include staffing shortages, disruptions to the supply chain, or government regulations such as travel bans or social distancing. For example: staffing shortages, reallocation of staff, or staff working remotely can cause delays in treatment, impact your ability to respond to medical travel patient requests in a timely manner and, for those organizations still treating medical travelers, potentially limit the support provided to patients on the ground. Disruptions to the supply chain may limit your ability to supply the appropriate medical devices for a surgery or prescribe necessary medications to patients.

Healthcare providers and their medical travel programs must anticipate and monitor these issues in order to manage the scheduling, care and treatment provided to medical travel patients. It is important to note that if a healthcare provider is experiencing capacity challenges due to the influx of patients with Covid-19, obviously, medical travel must take a backseat to the needs of local patients.

  • Review the medical travel program finance and business plan implications

The financial hardship that most healthcare providers are currently experiencing will force many medical travel programs to reexamine their business plan, including financial projections and future budget. What if the budget for the medical travel program is reduced, or, on the other hand, is seen as a potential to help make up lost revenue?  How will this affect business development initiatives and future marketing strategies? Should you continue using the same marketing channels and targeting the same markets? Will circumstances and patient preferences promote the adoption of new technologies such as telehealth or new partnering relationships with providers?  Will you be able to manage if your medical travel program staff is reduced? What if there is a second wave of coronavirus cases? These and other questions need to be considered and discussed with the appropriate stakeholders in order to accurately plan for the future success of your medical travel program.

  • Execute revised strategies as you continue to monitor the situation

Finally, as circumstances allow, you will begin to execute your new business plan or revised strategies as you continue to monitor the crisis. As an example, this might include:

  • Taking stock of capacity and which procedures or treatments make more sense to promote, depending on the available resources.
  • Developing priority for rescheduling patients who missed surgeries, treatments or appointments.
  • Scaling up communication and education strategies to traveling patients and other payers such as insurance companies, governments and employers.
  • Letting patients and other payers know when your medical travel program has reopened (if it was closed) using email, text, social media, website, etc.
  • Analyzing the competitive landscape. Covid-19 came across the world in a wave. Some countries were hit earlier than others and certain countries were better prepared and are clearly in a better position than others to restart their medical travel programs.
  • Identifying opportunities for new partnerships with payers, facilitators or even other healthcare providers who may need to temporarily defer medical travel patients to you or you to them.
  • Initiating targeted marketing campaigns.
  • Employing and promoting telehealth technology for some consultations.

There is no one-size fits all scenario to ensure business continuity; each medical travel program will have its own unique set of challenges to overcome, often to be pursued subordinate to a broader hospital or clinic policy. At the same time, you will need to continually monitor the crisis and make the necessary adjustments to your program strategy as demanded by the conditions on the ground.

As Covid-19 continues its course around the globe, medical travel program strategies to manage through the current crisis will continue to evolve. GHA is committed to monitoring and sharing these strategies and case studies so that healthcare providers and their medical travel programs are informed about the latest trends and can implement beneficial strategies that are appropriate to their unique circumstances.