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Traveling for Treatment: medical tourism in Central and Eastern Europe

Media 16 April 2017

People spend over $100 billion on medical procedures in foreign countries. In CEE, the trend has become a goldmine. (Article of an Austrian magazine, Metropole.at).

Plastic surgeon Greg Pataki is a bit of a missionary. Founder of Premium Plastic Surgery in Budapest, he talks about “perfect proportions” and spends his days correcting features that “disturb mental and physical harmony.” It’s about beauty, of course, and about 80 percent of their clients are women. But it’s also about burn victims and mothers sagging from childbearing, a Roma child with a cleft palate or a CEO not ready to look old.

It’s also about making care available at a reasonable price. Today, 20 to 25 percent of Pataki’s clients come from abroad, a portion he says is increasing. It’s part of the worldwide trend called “medical tourism,” people crossing borders to find the treatment they need at a price they can afford.

Medical tourism is worth $100 billion annually, with predicted growth of 25 percent in the next 10 years, according to a 2011 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  According to the Medical Tourism Index, in the next few years around 3-4 percent of world’s population will become medical tourists – most often for dental care, cosmetic and elective surgery, and fertility treatment.

Many of the top destinations are in the EU: Some of these are in the West, including the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Malta and in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) where Hungary is joined by Poland and Czechia as the leading destinations, countries supporting the industry with organized travel and marketing.


“There is an increasing demand from Germans and Austrians, or from expatriates living in these German-speaking countries.” (Dr. Greg Pataki, founder of Premium Plastic Surgery, Budapest)


Hungary has been particularly successful. Since EU accession in 2004, the country has worked on attracting clients from wealthier Western European countries, according to the OECD report, noting its reputation as the “dental capital of the world.” For the Viennese, going to Sopron for bridgework or a crown is routine to the point of cliché. You often overhear locals at a reception swapping referrals. They also know Hungary as a source of high-quality and affordable elective, cosmetic and plastic surgery.

Dr. Pataki confirms this perception: “There is increasing demand from Germans and Austrians, or from expatriates living in these German-speaking countries,” he says. Although most come from Europe, particularly the U.K. or Ireland, his clinic has patients from as far away as Asia and New Zealand.

So why Hungary? Pataki cites competitive prices and the professionalism and knowledge of the staff. “Hungarian doctors really do live up to international standards.”

Quality is essential but price is certainly also a deciding factor. With the aid of low-cost airlines, patients from wealthier countries are able to travel to find more affordable treatment. For Americans, whose health care is among the most expensive in the world, it can be cheaper to travel abroad for certain procedures than to do them at home.

One such person is Beth Grella, whose family has frequently gone abroad for dental work, often to Europe. “I even had my teeth cleaned in the Netherlands,” Grella reports. Even in this Western European country, it was considerably less expensive than in the U.S., where dental work is rarely covered by insurance. So holidays are often a “twofer” – two for the price of one.

“We travel for pleasure but, since I know these procedures are cheaper elsewhere, I try to throw in an appointment,” says Grella. She also tries to buy the more expensive medicines abroad and do a few simple cosmetic procedures at the dermatologist.

Some countries are just discovering the potential. Grella remembers being in -Bosnia and Herzegovina and being unable to organize a trip to a dermatologist because there was only one in the city. “There was a dermatologist in Mostar that gave fantastic facials,” says Grella, then a teacher at a language school in Sarajevo. But without a car and Bosnian language skills, she was unable to organize it before she left.

CEE countries are in fact often hampered by inadequate infrastructure, the roads, train service  and airports needed to connect them easily to the rest of Europe. However, a part of the problem is simply the lack of organization, according to the Bosnian magazine BH Putovanja. Still, they get their share of medical tourists. Bosnian dentists “work overtime during the summer,” when the diaspora flows in from the West, using visits home to squeeze in a medical appointment.

Throughout the CEE, the diaspora remains a key market for health services and infrastructure.

Now living in Germany, Sorina Ion, 25, flies home to Romania every two months for adjustments to her braces. In -Germany this service is only covered for minors. Out of pocket, it would cost her some €3,000 – about three times what it costs at home. In part, it’s also about being in a familiar system.

“For me it’s better,” Ion says. “You can do everything in private hospitals, where the doctors are very professional and use new medical technologies and equipment.”

Like much of the CEE, Romania is also blessed with thermal and healing waters, another draw for medical tourists. According to the website Treatment Abroad (treatmentabroad.com), a leading source of information about most popular destinations for medical tourism, there is also a growing number of companies who will arrange everything from treatment to tours, accommodation to flights.

Among Austria’s neighbors in Central Europe, Czechia has perhaps best  understood the potential of medical tourism. According to Treatment Abroad, Czechia has developed a booming industry that markets affordable services by highly–trained professionals, mostly in the areas of dentistry and cosmetic surgery, with some notable successes in fertility treatment.

Other countries have some atypical services. Serbia, despite its general homophobic climate, has gained a reputation as a hub for sexual reassignment surgery, according to Transitions Online, a news website based in Prague. While the cost of this surgery is generally lower than in Western countries, some clients report that they were more attracted by the quality of care than the low cost. An Italian, for whom the female-to-male surgery would have been free in Italy, told the Agence France-Press (AFP) in December 2016 that he chose Serbia because of the doctors’ experience. Every year, 15-20 foreigners choose to do their sex reassignment surgery in this South East European country.

For clients coming to the CEE countries, it’s a package deal: Fascinating cities with long and rich histories, as well as beautiful natural landscapes, coupled with the possibility of good-quality, low-cost medical services. All in all, CEE is is an increasingly attractive destination for Western Europeans. Why get an expensive procedure at home when you can get the same thing for less in a neighboring country, and at the same time enrich your life with an impromptu visit to the seaside, thermal waters or an ancient archeological site?

Business or pleasure? Medical tourism may make you rethink your next holiday.

(Maida Salkanović, Metropole.at)


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