Is Health Tourism Greece’s Next Cash Cow?

Photo: Eurokinissi/Giannis Panagopoulos, File

By Andriana Mitrakos

CHICAGO, IL – As the cost of healthcare in the United States continues to rise, global medical tourism emerges as an attractive alternative. Also known as health tourism, the mix of travel and healthcare was the focus of a two-day Health Tourism Seminar organized by the Athens Medical Association (AMA) and the Central Union of Municipalities of Greece, April 28-29.

The event’s speakers, which included Greek political leaders and members of the scientific and educational community, highlighted the benefits Greece can provide to patients seeking healthcare abroad.

“We began this effort…with the World Association of Greek Doctors to join forces with the goal of having patients visit Greece, and keeping doctors from leaving Greece,” President of the Medical Association of Athens and the Cultural Union of Municipalities in Greece, Dr. George Patoulis, said. “Since Greece produces reliable medical and research potential, the country can be a center for medical sciences for any patient who is seeking healthcare at a lower cost,” he added.

Prescription drug sales in the United States reached $450 billion in 2016, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. That’s a price tag of $1,387 per U.S. resident spent solely on medicine.

The typical patient bill for medical treatment and surgeries in Greece is five time lower than that of the United States, Patoulis noted. “This creates a great opportunity for patient satisfaction in Greece,” he said, citing the country’s “natural beauty, hospitality, heritage, climate, lifestyle, geographic location and highly educated Greek doctors.”

Indeed, with a pleasant climate, calming atmosphere and natural biodiversity, Greece is a gem among the planet’s destinations. To list just a few notable attributes…the Greek mountains and islands are home to medicinal plant species, many that grow nowhere else in the world. The country’s thermal springs have provided relief to many since antiquity. And recently, the Greek island of Ikaria received global recognition when it was highlighted by journalists for the remarkable longevity of its inhabitants.

“God generously gave Greece this environment,” said Minister of Marine and Island Policy Panayiotis Kouroumblis, who lost his eyesight to an accident at age 10.

Health tourism is not a modern feat. In fact, the act of travel to seek healthcare can be traced to Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece. Indeed, the asclepeia were healing temples throughout Greece and Rome, named after Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing and medicine. “The asclepeia were the first spas of the era,” said DePaulUniversity Department of Management and Entrepreneurship Professor Dr. Nikos Avlonas.

“The Ancient Greeks and Romans traveled even by foot for many days or with ships to seek spa and medical treatment at very specialized centers – the famous asklipeia,” he said.

Experts predict that global health tourism will continue to rise in the near future, led especially by the aging population. A 2016 report by Visa estimates that by 2025, travelers aged 65 and over will more than double their international travel to 180 million trips, accounting for one in eight international trips globally.

“Aging travelers will transform travel, and one area that is already growing in response is the so-called ‘medical tourism’ industry, as more travelers opt to combine medical treatments with vacation,” the report states.

The report, which used Visa transaction data to study cross-boarder spending in over 176 countries, stated that reduced cost of surgeries and treatment, as well as obtaining treatment and medication not available in the traveler’s home country, were among the most common reasons for health tourism.

The Medical Tourism Association, claims there are 11 million medical tourists annually, while Patients Beyond Boarders estimates that medical tourism involves 14 million individuals every year.

The Visa report found the United States to be the single largest hub for medical tourism, with Thailand, Singapore, Germany, Korea, and Spain quickly catching up, increasingly attracting visitors from around the world.

And while many flock to the United States to receive state of the art treatment and procedures that may be unavailable in their home country, more Americans are seeking cross-boarder treatment to lessen the burden on their pockets.

“A heart bypass in the U.S. costs $90,000. In Thailand that costs $12,000. Dental implants in Costa Rica cost 40% less, and can be combined with vacation,” said Avlonas, who is also founder and president at the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence.

A Patients Beyond Boarders report states that in 2012, “more than 900,000 Americans packed their bags and headed overseas for nearly every imaginable type of medical treatment: tummy tucks in Brazil, heart valve replacements in Thailand, hip resurfacing surgeries in India, addiction recovery in Antigua, fertility diagnosis and treatments in South Africa, thalassotherapy in Hungary, or restorative dentistry in Mexico.”

Recognizing a growing trend, politicians, business people and health providers are looking to join forces to promote Greece as a center for health tourism.

“The practice of healthcare is in the Greek doctor’s DNA, and certainly, one would say that [Greek doctors] possess the solidarity and humanitarianism healthcare demands,” Patoulis said. “In the context of the new national strategy that we are trying to develop, we believe that [Greece]…is in a competitive position in the global health tourism market and offers opportunities for development,” he added.

Following a tour in Canada and New York, day one of the Health Tourism Seminar was hosted at the Hellenic American Community Cultural Center in Chicago. The evening included personal testimonies of people who have benefited from the services provided in Greece. These included treatments such as intra venous fertilization, dentistry, spa tourism, ophthalmology, plastic surgery and medical robotics, among others.

“Our goal is for our country to secure a respectable share of international medical tourism,” said Dr. Konstantinos Pantos, a gynecologist and renowned IVF specialist.

“To achieve this goal, we must promote a different Greece, that of extroversion, effort, growth and trust. The Greek-American community here has the potential to act as a catalyst for this effort,” he added.

A workshop on the business prospects of health tourism in Greece, featuring doctors, scientists and entrepreneurs took place April 29th at the National Hellenic Museum, where the goals of the newly-established World Association of Greek Doctors were also presented.