Dr. Meteb Wrekat, the director of the Ministry of Health’s Medical Tourism Directorate

A Shot in the Arm: Keeping Medical Tourism Competitive

Jordan remains an important medical tourism market, a reputation that can be maintained if the government tackled the big issues facing the sector.

With no less than 65 private hospitals, many boasting cutting edge facilities and first-rate physicians, Jordan has long been at the top of the global league tables in terms of attracting medical tourism.

Last year, however, the number of Arab patients seeking treatment here plunged almost 40 percent due to the tightening of visa requirements for patients arriving from conflict-wracked countries like Iraq and Yemen.

And although the Kingdom remains a top destination in the region, a quick google search for the best medical tourism destinations in the world no longer shows Jordan as a candidate, but rather countries in the Far East, South America, and even Turkey. Dubai is also quickly emerging as an important market for medical tourism.

Dr. Meteb Wrekat, the director of the Ministry of Health’s Medical Tourism Directorate, said the government and private medical providers need to work much more in unison if the sector, which provides around 10 percent of Jordan’s GDP, is to stand any chance of keeping up with its competitors.

The ministry established the directorate in 2008 as it became apparent just how big a contribution medical tourism was making to the economy, not only in terms of bumper revenues for hospitals and clinics, but also for service providers in other sectors such as transport and hospitality.

The newly established entity aimed at cooperating with the private sector, while also helping to alleviate the obstacles they face, deal with patient complaints, and ensure that all hospitals applied the prices set by the Ministry of Health.

However, the directorate only caters to the needs of the patients who visit the Kingdom’s private hospitals, that make up around 30 percent only of the overall visiting patients. The majority who go to outpatient clinics are the responsibility of the Jordan Medical Association that also set prices for physicians who run private clinics.

“We have a supervisory, regulatory role,” said Wrekat, adding that the directorate’s main priority was the patients and their needs. Through an office in the Queen Alia International Airport, the directorate attends to the patients’ needs, answering their queries and facilitating their arrival.

To measure patient’s satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, with the services and medical procedure they receive in the Kingdom’s hospitals, the directorate asks them to fill special forms. In these forms they are asked about the problems they might have faced, including exaggerated prices or medical errors, and in case of an issue, then the Health Minister is immediately informed, and a committee is formed with the private sector.

Currently, most of the patients visiting the Kingdom come from the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia due to its proximity. The drop in 2016 mainly affected the numbers of patients coming from Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, who made up the majority of patients in the past but who officials fear could also pose security risks to the country.

To solve this issue, a committee headed by the Minister of Health and made up of the private and public sectors agreed to devise a mechanism to facilitate the entry of patients. The committee agreed that within 72 hours, Jordanian embassies would send the patient’s medical report to the local hospitals, and when the patient arrives the hospital would inform the Ministry of Interior about their arrival.

Besides the visa issue, Libyan patients in particular who came in their thousands following the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, many of them injured during the country’s civil war, faced additional problems in the Kingdom a few years back. The Libyan government at the time accused Jordanian hospitals of exaggerating prices. They even asked an international auditing firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), to audit the bills.

Wrekat said that part of the Libyan dues has already been settled, but that the Libyan government still owes Jordanian private hospitals up to JD100 million. “But who do we address in Libya now to solve the issue?” asked Wrekat, citing the war-torn country’s political impasse. Wrekat added that despite Libya’s outstanding debts, Libyan patients still come to receive treatment in Jordanian hospitals.

He denied any exaggeration in prices, saying that the debt was large because it was accumulated over many years, adding that compared to prices elsewhere in the world, Jordan remains very affordable.

To counter the dwindling numbers of Arab patients, Wrekat stressed the need to penetrate new markets. “We need to find alternative markets other than the traditional ones, including northern Africa, like Morocco, as well as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and European countries,” he said.

One of the directorate’s main tasks is also to promote Jordan’s medical tourism sector domestically and abroad. However, Wrekat laments the lack of a fund dedicated to this. “To promote any commodity or business you need to advertise it,” he said. “Also what’s lacking is a unified and [comprehensive] strategy for the whole sector, the private hospitals and the public sector. We have asked more than once for an umbrella that would bring the whole sector together, because it’s currently scattered capital. Each hospital operates and promote on its own, which is an issue.”

Furthermore, for an advertising plan to be successful, he said there’s a need for the national carrier, RJ, to also play a role, starting routes to encourage new markets and lowering prices to encourage patients to seek medical treatment here.

Jordanian embassies used to also have a medical attaché, but that’s no longer the case as the only medical attaché is in Iraq’s Kurdistan.

Another challenge is the rising competition, particularly that coming from India, which is currently the Kingdom’s main competitor and is attracting patients from the GCC. Because India is cheaper and closer to the Gulf, more patients, especially Omanis, opt to go their now, explained Wrekat. According to The Times of Oman, the Indian Embassy issued 14,585 medical and medical attendant visas to Omanis until the end of August last year, a 222 percent rise compared to the same period the previous year.

Turkey is also becoming an important player in the international medical tourism market, with their long expertise. Turkey also plays it right by providing incentives like removing visa requirements for certain nationalities, and providing cheaper flights. But according to Wrekat, Jordan remains the number one player in the Middle East.

He stressed the importance of a Medical Liability Law, which is still being debated, to encourage more patients from other nationalities to seek medical treatment in the country. The law, said Wrekat, would guarantee the rights of both the patients and the doctors alike, but most importantly, give patients the needed confidence in the Jordanian legal system.

Dubai, which is also rising as a strong competitor in the medical tourism sector, recently introduced a new medical liability law that protects the rights of patients, physicians, and health-care providers. According to Gulf News, the law advises health-care services to obtain malpractice insurance, and details the process of investigation and disciplinary proceedings in cases of alleged malpractice.

Linking medical tourism to tourism in general by providing those accompanying the patient with packages to visit touristic sites, would also boost medical tourism and tourism in general. “If we get 200,000 patients per year, and each one is accompanied by one or two family members, then we are getting around 600,000 people per year, which is a good number. We still lack an entertainment policy for those accompanying the patient like in Turkey for instance,” said Wrekat.

Despite the numerous challenges facing the sector, Wrekat remains optimistic about the future. “I am optimistic that by mid or end of 2017 things will improve and start picking up again, but only if we take measures that would boost medical tourism in the Kingdom,” he said. “I believe that the private sector and the government need to cooperate regardless of narrow interests. We need to continue investing in our medical staff as well, and we need to have specialized centers similar to the King Hussein Cancer Center.”

Only this way, believes Wrekat, will Jordan go back to being a formidable contender in the race to becoming the world’s top medical tourism destination.