NO LONGER do people travel abroad just to see historical sights, experience foreign culture, go shopping or enjoy the sea. Now, along with memories of castles or galleries, some of them return home with new or modified teeth, artificial hip joints or new noses. Slovakia, with its lower health-care prices, wants to get a share of this market, but the health tourism business differs from traditional business segments as medical treatment providers primarily need to win the confidence of potential foreign clients. There are several medical facilities in Slovakia with ambitions to attract foreign clients not just through low prices but also based on the high quality of care they can offer.
“[The role of] confidence makes health tourism a very complicated business,” Tomáš Szalay from the Health Policy Institute think tank told The Slovak Spectator, adding that confidence is the key word within the business and that central European countries from the former communist bloc, like Slovakia, face serious complications gaining approval in the eyes of consumers from the West. According to Szalay, Hungary has partly succeeded. In parts of Hungary close to the border with Austria a number of Hungarian dentists provide dental treatments to Austrian clients. But according to Szalay, Slovakia has not been very successful in this business so far. He says that several providers of medical and spa treatments in Slovakia are interested in attracting foreign clients, but adds that problems remain.
“Health tourism is not only about providing medical treatment,” he said, explaining that it is necessary to provide this along with a non-medical event in one package and present it to the client in the form of an event or adventure. “People go to southern Africa for a safari and along with this they undergo plastic surgery. We are not able to offer this safari yet.”
With regards to the level of medical services available in Slovakia, Szalay believes that there are providers here whose services are comparable with the level in the West, both in terms of medical treatment as well as related services, for example high-quality accommodation, English-speaking staff, etc. He sees Slovakia as a promising health tourism destination because Slovakia meets one of the basic preconditions – medical treatment is often cheaper in Slovakia than in Western countries.
Some visitors to spas already combine spa treatment with medical treatment. For example, the spa in Piešťany cooperates closely with a local dental centre and the intensive dental treatment they offer jointly is one reason why some guests choose Piešťany, according to the spa’s website. Other spas across Slovakia also cooperate with dentists.
The experience of Peter Salem, executive director of Avicenum, a travel agency specialising in well-being tourism that brings foreign patients to Slovak spas, is that treatments other than spa therapies have not been the main reason for foreigners to travel to Slovakia, even though the agency is able to organise these. An exception is a rehabilitation institute in Slovakia for which it arranges stays based on a contract with the health ministry of the United Arab Emirates.
Along with lower prices, another motivation for patients to travel abroad is to reduce the waiting time for medical treatment. Szalay thinks in the case of organised health tours it might be possible to strike an agreement between a health-care provider and a foreign health insurance company, but says that the current legislative framework complicates this.
Foreign patients in Slovakia
It is very difficult to estimate the number of foreigners receiving medical treatment in Slovakia, according to Szalay, since no one in Slovakia is currently monitoring numbers. But several medical facilities say they have foreign clients and that they are ready to serve more. Along with dentistry, they offer plastic surgery, laser eye surgery, and other treatments.
The private Medissimo Polyclinic Hospital in Bratislava, which opened in May 2009, entered the health-care market with the ambition of becoming an alternative to traditional Slovak health-care facilities, which suffer from long waiting periods for examinations and surgery, and present a language barrier for some foreigners.
“In the past expatriates mostly went to clinics in Hainburg and in Vienna,” Júlia Mekyňová from Medissimo told The Slovak Spectator. “We are glad that a large percentage of them have found an alternative in Medissimo. We started with zero foreign clientele and nowadays foreign clients generate more than 15 percent of our total income. These are short-term as well as long-term visitors to Slovakia, especially to Bratislava. Our goal is further growth in foreign clientele.”
Medissimo also cooperates with some Bratislava hotels to serve foreign tourists whose stay is complicated by health problems.
In general, foreign clients visit Medissimo to receive ambulatory as well as hospital treatment. They come for radio-diagnostic examinations, preventive checks, planned surgery, physiotherapy or treatment of chronic diseases, as well as with urgent health conditions.
Cosmetic surgery, which is not normally covered by public health insurance, is also offered by a number of private clinics in Slovakia.
Esthetic, a private clinic offering plastic surgery, cosmetic treatments and laser medicine in Bratislava has registered some interest from foreign clients for about five years now.
“They contact us individually, but more often via mediating agencies,” Alexandra Novotná, the founder of the clinic, told The Slovak Spectator. “Mostly English, Americans and Austrians arrive. Of course, the motivation is money, i.e. quality treatment for an incomparably lower price than in their home country.”
They are mostly interested in plastic surgery, face-lifts, liposuction, abdominoplastic surgery, blepharoplastic surgery and breast augmentation, according to Novotná. They also like to use laser procedures.
Novotná sees lower prices as the main reason why foreign clients choose Slovakia.
“Especially in aesthetic surgery the prices are considerably lower,” she said. “Prices of injectables are comparable with the West because the material makes up the bigger portion of the procedure. So when we use the best materials our prices are comparable with those in the West.”
Another group of clients at the Esthetic clinic are expats, ambassadors and foreigners working in Slovakia using the English-language knowledge of doctors and the staff at the clinic. They visit the clinic to get classical cosmetic treatment or acne treatment, according to Novotná.
Currently the interest of foreign clients in eye treatment in Slovakia is minimal even though the equipment and quality of services at local private eye centres are at least comparable to the level in other EU countries, according to Ľubica Veselá, the head of Slovakia’s Association of Private Eye Doctors.
“It is very probable that in the near future we will see in Slovakia an expansion of ‘medical tourism’,” Veselá told The Slovak Spectator, noting the sometimes gaping differences in prices. “But I do not expect this to happen based on the activities of travel agencies providing ‘health trips’, which would cooperate with already existing centres. The most likely model is that a foreign company will build in Slovakia its own centre providing complex treatment, in which it will employ Slovak doctors or doctors on Slovak wages. Along with this it will secure a supply of foreign clients.”
According to Veselá, Austrians and Czechs make up most of the foreigners arriving to Slovakia to receive eye treatment. Austrians are the most frequent clients of private refraction centres, i.e. centres where doctors can eliminate the need for spectacles by use of laser treatment. Less frequently, they also come for complex eye examinations or eye surgery.
With regards to Slovakia’s comparative advantage for foreign clients, Veselá says that Slovak doctors are able to offer advantages in every area.
“Diagnostic equipment at our workplaces is frequently at a higher level than that used abroad,” she said. “The same is also true for operating theatres. Thus the treatments offered to them are at least comparable with those which they would get at home. The only difference is that those in Slovakia can be as much as two-thirds cheaper compared with those in the rest of Europe.”
The Bratislava-based Excimer Laser Clinic, which specialises in correcting dioptric faults in the eye, has recorded an increase in interest from foreign clients, but does not see the financial advantage as the only motivation.
“Foreign clients have been visiting our centre since its launch," Elena Sisková from the clinic told The Slovak Spectator. “In recent years interest from foreign clients has increased and now they make up almost one half of our patients.”
Most clients arrive from Austria, but they also come from Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Croatia and are mostly interested in laser eye surgery. Sisková believes that the price for laser surgery, which is lower compared to clinics abroad, is not the decisive point for patients as the clinic works with top laser equipment, there is a team of doctors with 17 years of experience with such eye surgery, and the clinic has created comfortable conditions with friendly staff and quality service for the patients.
“These are the main reasons why a satisfied foreign client sends other patients to our clinic,” said Sisková.
26. Jul 2010 at 0:00 | Jana Liptáková