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Government push to grow foreign patient numbers

The Anadolu Medical Center on the suburb of Instanbul. High level medial operation as well as moderate costs attracts many patients .

ISTANBUL -- Turkey continues to assert its dominance as a major medical tourism destination in West Asia, with a record 360,000 foreign patients visiting the country in 2014 -- up from 308,000 the year before. Government officials and healthcare industry executives also say a further 100,000 foreign patients receive daily treatments in outpatient clinics as well for procedures like hair transplants each year.

     Most foreign patients come from the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. Turkey offers cheaper treatments than its main regional competitors Germany and the United Arab Emirates, which are a 3-hour flight from Turkey's biggest city Istanbul. According to Turkish Airlines, 41 countries can be accessed from Istanbul with a 3-hour flight.

     Treatment in Turkey costs 40% to 50% less than in Western Europe and the U.S., said Omer Tontus, the general manager of health promotion at the country's Ministry of Health. Tontus said Israel also provides advanced medical treatment, however geopolitics and tough visa arrangements mean it is not a preferred destination.

     Turkey is the sixth largest tourism destination in the world and hosted 35 million tourists in 2013. Its convenient location, long hot seasons, frequent international flights, and high quality and cheap health care are all drawcards for medical tourists. The country plans to increase the number of foreign tourists by increasing the number of foreign patients who bring more revenue per person than the average tourist.

     In November 2014, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu named medical tourism as one of government's priority programs. By 2018, his government aims to increase revenue from medical, thermal and elderly care tourism to $9.3 billion from $2.7 billion in 2013. The government also plans to increase the number of foreign patients to 750,000 by the same year.

     About 85% of foreign patients opt for private hospitals but with the new government initiative the state is now planning to become a major player in the market, too. The government plans to invest $10 billion to build 35 large hospitals and plans to open medical tourism departments in 17 of the existing state hospitals. It also plans to set up medical tourism offices in six countries including the U.K., Russia and Turkmenistan.

     However, for the time being, private hospitals are enjoying the lion's share of foreign patients. Turkey's largest private hospital chain Acibadem, which is a subsidiary of Malaysia's IHH Healthcare where Mitsui & Co. is also a substantial shareholder, established a medical tourism department in 2007. Acibadem has 15 hospitals in Turkey with bed capacity of 2,351. It can serve foreign patients in nine languages and has 150 staff. Half of Acibadem's hospitals have Joint Commission International accreditation, indicating high quality.

A money-spinner

Acibadem Chairman Mehmet Ali Aydinlar says the company made 190 million Turkish Lira ($80.3 million) from foreign patients in 2013 and estimates a further $106 million in 2014. The hospital plans to increase the revenue ratio from foreign patients to 25% in four years from the current 15% level. Acibadem is also investing $400 million into three new hospitals including one in the tourist heart of Istanbul. The hospital chain has 24 offices overseas including in Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Iraq and the U.K. Last year the company received most of its foreign patients from Libya followed by Iraq then Azerbaijan.

     The largest number of foreign patients are treated at Anadolu Medical Center a private hospital owned by one of Turkey's leading conglomerates Anadolu Group on the outskirts of Istanbul. It is affiliated with the prestigious U.S. hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine. Its doctors can get a second opinion from Johns Hopkins Medicine experts and staff can be sent to the U.S. for training. The hospital receives about 5,000 foreign patients from 60 countries each year and for the past five years foreign patient numbers have grown annually by 67% on average.

     Foreign patients account for just 5-6% of total patients at Anadolu Medical Center but generate 35% of the revenue. Most foreign patients are receiving expensive treatments for diseases like cancer. The hospital established a foreign patient division in 2005 and has a team of about 80 staff who can provide services in other languages such as Arabic or Russian. Anadolu has also set up offices for foreign patients overseas in Romania and Azerbaijan among other countries.

     According to a Turkish Statistical Institute survey, the level of patient satisfaction with the country's health care services jumped to 75% from 39% in 2002. Tontus says the European Union's average satisfaction rate is 57%. He also points out that the number of JCI accredited hospitals in Turkey rose to 52 from 17 on five years ago. In terms of plastic surgeons, Turkey ranks 9th in the world with 1,200 according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. 

     A Ministry of Health report said most foreign patients to Turkey are coming to the ophthalmology, orthopedics, oncology, transplantation, dentistry and cosmetic surgery departments.

     According to U.S.-based Patients Without Borders, Turkey ranks seventh in the world as a medical tourism destination. The government is aiming for fifth by 2018, although it remains to be seen whether Turkey can compete with rival medical tourism powerhouses such as Malaysia or Thailand.  

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