By Afshin Majlesi

Steps Iran must take to become leading player in medical tourism

March 9, 2021 - 22:42

As you are well aware, medical tourism is booming worldwide as about 20 to 24 million people are traveling for medical treatments annually. Factors such as increased care needs over longer lifespans, rising healthcare costs, and constant pressures on some insurance industries are reasons behind why some opt to travel abroad.

Regarding price competitiveness, Iran currently ranks first in the world but the country has not been very successful in attracting potential travelers as other competitors like Singapore and Turkey. People from the Persian Gulf littoral states, Iraq and Syria as well as Iranian expatriates residing in Canada and Germany constituted the majority of medical travelers to the Islamic Republic, who received plastic, cosmetics, open-heart, and orthopedic surgeries amongst other treatments over the past couple of years.

A recent study co-authored by Iranian researchers Khalil Momeni, Ali Jannati, Rahim Khodayari-Zarnaq, Shabnam Ghasemyani, and Mohamadreza Havasian, suggests the main difference between Iran other countries they selected for the study lies in the organizational structure of the main stakeholders of the tourism industry; in other countries, this industry is organized and supervised by specific coordination bodies.

Data were gathered from databases, including PubMed, Web of Knowledge, Scopus, Magiran, SID, and websites of the World Tourism Association, the Ministry of Tourism, and the Ministry of Health of the selected countries from 2000 to 2020. The study was published in the Melbourne-based Healthscope, which operates private hospitals, medical centers, and international pathology services.

Six countries were selected purposefully, including Singapore, Turkey, Costa Rica, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and Iran. They were compared in terms of the status of tourism and travel competitiveness, governance and policy-making status, the status of the medical tourism industry, and medical tourism infrastructure.

In terms of tourism and travel competitiveness, Singapore, with a global rank of 17, was better than other countries. Based on the status of the medical tourism industry, Costa Rica ranked 7th in the world, and Singapore, the UAE (Dubai), Turkey, UAE (Abu Dhabi), Jordan, and Iran ranked 15, 22, 27, 31 35, and 41, respectively. In Iran, all indicators of medical tourism infrastructure were lower than those of other countries except for competitive prices.

Comparative tables involved components, such as general profile, tourism and travel competitiveness, governance and policy, the status of the medical tourism industry, and medical tourism infrastructure in selected countries. The framework analysis based on the identified components was used to analyze the data.

Furthermore, the study has confirmed that despite the legal framework for medical tourism development in Iran, this industry is currently facing several challenges. “These challenges are lack of specific medical tourism structure at the international, national, and regional levels, the lack of a medical tourism system, definition and formulation of laws, policies, and plans, the lack of infrastructure, and the lack of supervision system.”

  All of the indicators in tourism and travel competitiveness are low in Iran except pricing, which is ranked as the first cheapest country in the world. The growing medical tourism industry requires the optimal provision of all tourism infrastructures and not only the promotion of different indicators, the study suggests.

Based on the report of the Medical Tourism Organization, the UAE, Turkey, and Jordan are the three most important destinations for medical tourism in West Asia.

Even though Iran has good conditions in terms of competitive price, presence of skilled physicians, and low waiting time among the studied countries, but other medical tourism infrastructures are not enough invested. For example, until 2017, Iran has not been able to obtain a JCI license even for one hospital, and the average per capita physician/nurse index is much lower than the global one. To promote medical tourism, it is necessary to recognize the strategic medical tourism status of each province in the country, supply a specialized workforce, provide high-quality services, improve infrastructure, and promote a positive attitude of authorities to support the medical tourism industry.

The study has also found that factors that can play a positive role in the development of medical tourism in Iran are advanced services for infertility treatment, cosmetic and dental surgery, organ transplantation and cell therapy, cultural similarity and familiarity with neighboring countries, and competitive prices. Measures, such as improving human resource communication skills and developing private hospitals following international standards, can also be effective in developing medical tourism.  

The main difference between the selected countries and Iran lies down in the organizational structure of the main stakeholders of the tourism industry. The study showed that one of the challenges for growing medical tourism in Iran is the presence of different organs of political and decision-making, as well as the cultural and political conditions. In all other countries, this industry is organized and supervised by specific coordination bodies.

The revise of coordinating policies and strategies between various ministries, other government bodies, the private sector could help facilitate cross-sectoral coordination in this area. One of the important factors in the development of the medical tourism industry is the focus on attracting tourists from neighboring countries. Generally, certain populations are attracted more to certain locations. This might be due to a similar ethnic and cultural background.

“To increase Iran’s ability to compete with countries in the region, such as Turkey, in attracting medical tourists, long-term plans should be developed to strengthen the infrastructure and cultural reforms, increase private sector participation and plan for the efficient use of mass media and local press for raising awareness. This requires a national effort and redefining the role of health tourism in the economy, as well as a strong trustee to follow up these measures,” the study suggests.

According to the authors, the strengths points of the present study are the comprehensiveness of the selected countries and obtaining systematic information according to the appropriate strategy search. One of the limitations of the study is that in many items, the existing indicators are not updated, and some of the documents were in languages other than English and Persian.

The Islamic Republic has set goals to exceed its yearly medical travelers to around two million in [calendar year] 1404 (March 2025-March 2026). Amongst Iran’s trump cards are the presence of credible surgeons and physicians, cutting-edge medical technologies, high-tech medicine and diverse specializations, super affordable procedures, and finally its hospitable people.


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