The changing face of medical tourism in Africa

September, 2009

Lorraine Melvill, has been running Surgeon & Safari, a South African medical tourism facilitator for over ten years. She talked to IMTJ about the changing face of African Medical Tourism and the importance of standardising Medical Tourism Associations and facilitators across the world.

How is the African medical tourism market changing?

Over the past ten years most of our patients have come from the first world, from English speaking counties like the US & UK but this situation is changing and we now see increasing numbers of patients from within Africa travelling to South Africa for treatment.

Why do you think this is happening?

I think this is happening because South Africa is well established as the centre of medical excellence in Africa and our private facilities and surgeons are known as being some of the best in the world. Increasing numbers of patients are now coming from other African countries – they are the affluent Africans which includes the ex-pat communities that have been based in African countries for many years who would previously gone to the US for treatment.

I think they are choosing us because South Africa as a medical tourism destination offers so many advantages to Africans from all over the continent; we are in the same time zone and speak English and have cultural similarities and we are a lot cheaper than the US – the whole process is much simpler.

How has the worldwide economic downtown affected the South African medical tourism market?

At the moment there is a glut of destinations available and South Africa, like everywhere else has been affected by the recession. Things have definitely changed and there is now a huge amount of competition, unlike when I started in this business ten years ago, but competition is always healthy so I see that as a good thing. Not all facilitators and countries offer what we offer but fortunately, as I said before, we have a new market with more patients coming to us from within the rest of Africa, so yes the recession has affected us but at the same time new markets are opening up and Africa is now our growth market and a place of opportunity for us.

How do you operate as a facilitator at Surgeon & Safari?

South Africa has a unique system. Private hospitals are independent medical facilities and all South African medical specialists are independent and do not work for hospitals and will only work for a hospital or clinic if they are happy with the facility. Additionally doctors are not allowed to market or advertise themselves so therefore they need to be associated with a facilitator but cannot act as medical tourism facilitators themselves nor can facilitators make any medical evaluations and therefore they don’t have any medical liability for the patients.

As far as facilitators are concerned I know we are unlike other facilitators that we offer a unique service at Surgeon & Safari. We are a boutique service and whilst a business we very much take into consideration the patients’ emotional wellbeing and understand how vulnerable they are when travelling for surgery. We’re not just about making travel and recuperation arrangements. We know that our future assets are our patients and that the majority of our clients are recommendations and returning clients and therefore we are very mindful about the type of service we give and how we treat them and we make it a priority to give a lot of personal attention to our patients and to understand and anticipate their needs.

I believe that one of the fundamental roles of facilitation is to be non judgemental and available to listen to patients, it’s more than just making practical arrangements. It’s helping people feel comfortable at a time when they are feeling very vulnerable and we strive to really look after our clients.

I realise that not every patient needs this kind of pre and aftercare, it very much depends on the treatment but I feel there is a huge discrepancy in the kind of services facilitation companies are offering today’s medical tourist and I know that those services vary enormously in what they offer the medical tourist.

Do you think the wide range of difference in services that facilitators offer is a problem for the market?

Yes, I believe that this wide variation of services leaves patients unsure about what they are getting when they book treatment through a facilitator. I believe there needs to be an industry wide clarification and definition of what a facilitator provides so that potential clients know what to expect when approaching a facilitator. Standards need to be set up to establish transparency and people need to know what they can and can’t expect from a facilitator when arranging treatment and then pre and post-operatively.

There currently doesn’t seem to be any checks and balances in the business and there needs to be and that goes for accreditation as well as facilitators and medical tourism associations.

  • It’s all very confusing at the moment, everyone is setting up Medical Travel/Tourism Associations but who is monitoring them?

  • Who would set up these standards for accreditation services and facilitators?

I think that all the associations need to talk to each other about their facilitation and accreditation standards, the bodies need to get together and workshop out standardised basic criteria that facilitators and MTA’s agree to adhere to.

Why do you think it is so important to set international standards for accreditation and facilitators?

It’s a free for all at the moment and there doesn’t seem to be much credibility because nothing is standardised. First world countries are trying to establish standards and associations that are inconsistent and incompatible with each other. Additionally what’s right for the first world is not necessarily right for medical travel businesses in emerging markets, everything doesn’t need to be US led or US certified. Other countries also have exacting and high standards and there needs to be a common set of rules and regulations which are suitable and applicable to all countries not only European countries or the US.

Medical tourism associations were originally set up to protect their members and yet I believe that today some appear to operate like commercial medical tourism internet portals and are run as online commercials ventures. There needs to be well defined measures of quality and standards for MTAs with accountability of its members, offering consumers transparency so that they can make informed and educated choices. MTAs should be there to protect their members; they are trade associations and should not be used as marketing tools to attract patients but for some reason they are being marketed as there to protect the consumers and being marketed as a measure of quality and standards for consumers.

Profile of Lorraine Melvill

Lorraine Melvill, has been running Surgeon & Safari, a South African medical tourism facilitator for over ten years. Surgeon and Safari spearheaded the medical tourism industry in South Africa with top quality medical staff, extensive after care, follow up and professional service.