In late August 2017, South African Minister of Health Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi made an official visit to Zimbabwe to deliver a speech no one was anticipating. Dr. Motsoaledi took critical aim at the political leaders of Angola, Nigeria and even Zimbabwe for their “medical tourism.” The South African health official was referring to the trips taken by Robert Mugabe, Muhammadu Buhari and José Eduardo Dos Santos—three heads of state who chose to get treatment outside of Africa at a time when many foreign visitors are coming to the Continent in search of quality healthcare at very affordable prices.
Over the last two decades, medical tourism has emerged as a natural progression of globalization. To a great extent, healthcare has always been a marketplace; in the past, however, going abroad to get medical treatment was mostly in the purview of wealthy patients from developing nations who sought advanced procedures in North America and Europe, two regions that have always been held in high esteem with regard to medical practice. To this effect, the three aforementioned African leaders who traveled to places such as London and Singapore for healthcare purposes are examples of the old face of medical tourism. These days, however, a sort of reversal is taking place in the sense that middle-income patients from the United States and Europe are heading overseas to combine vacations with affordable medical procedures.
Kenya and South Africa are emerging as the leading destinations in the Continent for medical tourists, followed by Ghana, Egypt and Uganda. These countries are following the business models of medical clinics in Mexico, Turkey, India, Thailand, and Costa Rica, which have been long known to attract medical tourists by offering holiday packages they can combine with treatments. Some African nations enjoy a regional advantage in terms of political stability and quality of care; this is clearly the case in Kenya, a country that is a haven of development, stability and quality of life in a volatile region. According to the 2017 Economic Development in Africa Report, which is published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Kenya attracts patients from neighboring nations where the national health infrastructure is in desperate need of improvement.
Aside from political stability, the aforementioned African nations have other advantages such as language and clinical ties to renowned medical schools and research centers around the world. Many physicians in Egypt, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana have trained in American and British institutions. Naturally, the prices of the procedures are key to the growth of medical tourism, and it is no secret that many of the treatments sought by health travelers are of the cosmetic variety.
For “surgery safaris” to succeed in Africa, business leaders should follow the successful promotion strategies practiced in nations such as Costa Rica, where medical tourists can also participate in eco-adventures and visit paradisiacal beaches. African-American patients could be interested in cultural tours, particularly in nations such as Kenya, where former President Barack Obama has ancestral roots. Muslim Americans may want to pursue medical tourism in Egypt, provided that political stability returns soon.