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Medical tourism slow to recover as patients watch their spending

(Updates Feb 27 story to clarify status of Budapest clinic,
adds statement from Kreativ Dental, adds context on recovery in
patient count since travel restrictions eased, changes headline)

BUDAPEST, Feb 27 (Reuters) – Attila Knott has an empty
clinic that he had planned to open as a dental hospital in
Hungary in March of 2020.

But the foreigners with bad teeth he had expected to
treat then were deterred by COVID-19. The high cost of travel
and economic uncertainty have emerged as concerns for some
potential patients since travel restrictions were lifted, he

The global medical tourism industry, a beneficiary of
low-cost travel and open borders, is struggling to recover from
the hit it took during the pandemic, operators and analysts say.

“People are more cautious,” Knott told Reuters, staring
at the empty building across the street from his existing
Kreativ Dental clinic. “They think twice about spending big
money all at once on something like dental treatment.”

The businessman will now open it in the spring with
Hungarian government financial backing as a clinic offering not
only dental implants, but other minor surgeries, too, the
company said in a statement to Reuters on March 17. Knott said
those could include colonoscopies and knee replacements.

For years, travelling abroad to clinics in countries like
Hungary and Turkey has been an option for British and North
American patients who face long waits, high costs or both for
dental and medical procedures at home.

Operators had hoped for a rapid bounce back after curbs on
travel were lifted.

But inflation fuelled by soaring energy and food prices
since the Ukraine war started a year ago has left people with
little money to spare, especially for cosmetic procedures.

In Hungary, which borders Ukraine, the war itself is making
foreigners wary, Knott said.

Rising air fares and fewer flights – and the memory of last
summer’s travel chaos – are also putting off would-be patients,
clinic operators and analysts told Reuters.

For some trips, like those to Turkey, airline tickets can be
twice what they were in 2019, according to WeCure, which
specialises in medical tourism to large hubs like Turkey from
countries like Britain.

WeCure said flights, ground transfers and petrol now
accounted for about 15% of the cost of its travel and treatment
packages, roughly double their proportion pre-COVID, putting
upward pressure on overall prices.

Some clinics, facing their own higher costs, have hiked
charges. A hip or knee replacement at Nordorthopaedics in
Lithuania is about 15% more expensive now than five years ago,
the clinic told Reuters.

“There will be some trade-offs (for customers),” WeCure’s
CEO Emre Atceken said. “Instead of having a hair transplant. I’d
rather pay my gas bills. I would rather pay my electric bills.”


To encourage clients, some clinic operators are offering
pay-as-you-go options, while crowdfunding has sprung up as
another source of support.

Atceken said WeCure is offering some customers payment in
instalments to stretch out the cost.

Lyfboat, an Indian company providing medical services for
foreign patients, told Reuters it has collaborated with a
fundraising platform called ImpactGuru to help patients pay for
essential surgeries.

Some operators are targeting patients from Britain and
Canada, where strained public healthcare services can mean long

Knott said most of his patients are from Britain and
Iceland, while fewer are coming from other Nordic countries and

Linda Frohock, 73, from Staffordshire, said she delayed
retirement, took out a bank loan and used savings to travel to
Budapest for dental implants.

She paid 8,000 pounds instead of the estimated 32,000 pounds
the procedure would have cost in Britain.

“If it’s an emergency and only here could do it, then I
wanted them to do it. Somehow you just have to find what you
need,” she said.


The International Medical Travel Journal, published by
market intelligence service LaingBuisson, estimates the medical
tourism market is currently worth around $21 billion, less than
pre-pandemic, although editor Keith Pollard warned data is poor.

With about 7 million medical travellers a year the IMTJ sees
annual growth of 5%-10% as realistic – far less than some

Laszlo Puczko, who runs Budapest-based Health Tourism
Worldwide, said clinics specialising in urgent procedures would
weather the economic climate as even customers feeling the
financial pinch will pay. But those that have competed on price
for elective treatments like rhinoplasty will find it harder to
survive, he and others said.

“An orthopaedic surgery is something that you cannot
postpone if you have severe arthritis and you cannot walk. It’s
a major, life-changing surgery,” said Vilius Sketrys, who runs
sales and marketing at Nordorthopaedics.

Bob Martin, 71, decided to pay around 18,000 pounds for new
dental implants at Kreativ. A retired NHS nurse manager from
Britain, Martin’s adult teeth never came through and he has
struggled for much of his life with dentures.

“If I need to get the work done, what choice have I got?” he

Patient numbers have been rising at Kreativ Dental since
pandemic restrictions were lifted, the company said. The number
of patients was up 40% in January and February, though still
down by almost half from the same months in 2020, data provided
by the company showed.

Patients who need vital dental work done will press ahead,
said Knott at Kreativ. That has meant more patients at the
clinic have been coming for more costly and complicated
procedures that can’t be deferred, he said. “The quality of the
patients is much better,” he said.

“These people usually don’t negotiate. They sign whatever we
put in front of their nose,” he said.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska
Editing by Catherine Evans)

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