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Medical tourism keeps growing

International patients still checking in despite regional turmoil

by Nabila Rahhal

The phrase “medical tourism in Lebanon” conjures for many the idea of visitors from the Gulf sitting in cafés and waiting for nose jobs. In reality, plastic surgery makes up only a small percentage of the country’s international patients’ needs.

Eighty-five percent of foreigners who seek treatment in Lebanon do so for other medical reasons, according to Mounes Kalaawi, partner and chief executive of Clemenceau Medical Center (CMC). 

Despite the declining number of tourists visiting Lebanon, the country remains a regional healthcare destination because when it comes to one’s life, travel warnings and political turmoil become surmountable obstacles. 

Driven by necessity

International patients account for roughly 20 percent of the total number of patients in the hospitals interviewed. Those patients are mainly from the region — 80 percent of Clemenceau Medical Center’s international patients are Arab — and feel that their countries cannot provide a competitive level of healthcare. “I was a consultant for some hospitals in the Gulf, and I can tell you that their level of treatment is not as advanced as ours,” says Dia Hassan, president and CEO of Bellevue Medical Center (BMC).

Mohamad Sayegh, dean of the Faculty of Medicine and vice president of Medical Affairs at the American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC), says that international patients are drawn to the highly specialized healthcare services at AUBMC. He says that the majority of cases that the center sees are serious and complicated and have been referred to them. 

Lebanon’s hospitals are especially reputable in the fields of oncology and digestive, cardiac and brain surgeries.

“The Iraqis don’t have a lot of good resources for radiation therapy…, so they tend to come here for those purposes,” says Sayegh. The number of Iraqis who come to AUBMC for treatment, mainly for cancer cases, has risen from 39 percent of the 2,297 international patients in 2010 to 58 percent of the 2,497 international patients in 2012. Both AUBMC and CMC plan to establish cancer centers in the coming years to keep up with the growing demand for such treatment.

CMC also introduced robotic surgery to the region, which is in high demand by international patients due to its noninvasive nature. 

Affordable & accessible

Medical procedures in Lebanon cost less than they do in Europe or the United States, says Kalaawi of CMC. 

BMC’s Hassan explains that most Gulf governments subsidize treatment abroad for their nationals. They choose Lebanon because the country is close to them — not only in distance but also in language and culture.

The unstable political climate of summer 2012 did impact medical tourism: demand for elective surgery from international patients decreased, and hospitals that depended on that saw their business decrease. “The Gulf countries simply stopped sending their nationals to Lebanon for healthcare and we… felt their absence,” says Hassan. The most performed operations in BMC are plastic surgeries. 

But those who could not afford to go elsewhere for pathological services still came to Lebanon. AUBMC reported a 5 percent growth in the number of its international patients in 2012. 

“We have a steady flow of international patients but this flow goes up and down according to the regional stability. The events of 2012 saw a reduction of international patients by 50 percent from certain nationalities but they were replaced by patients from other countries who were not affected by [travel] bans,” says Kalaawi, adding that if it were not for these regional disturbances, medical tourism would be a very important factor in the Lebanese economy. 

The number of patients from Syria is increasing as well. “The war in Syria obviously had an impact on the medical centers there and people who have complicated illnesses are forced to seek healthcare elsewhere and some come to Lebanon,” says AUBMC’s Sayegh, who adds that the massive influx of Syrian refugees augments this number. 

Travel outside one’s country for healthcare is not a new or unique situation, and while Lebanon remains a key destination for medical tourism in the region for the moment, instabilities in the country may drive some potential business away and allow other countries to catch up with us in this field. 

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Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut. Send mail

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