Looking at the steady flow of foreign medical tourists to Turkiye these days, one would not be able to fathom the despair many Turkish citizens once felt when seeking healthcare locally.
In the last two decades, Turkish hospitals have undergone extraordinary transformation. So much so, people in their 20s would not be able to recall the harrowing wait their parents used to endure even for simple procedures.
Turkish public healthcare services today are not only within easy reach of most citizens but they are also largely free of cost for them.
The Turkish government launched a healthcare transformation plan and universal healthcare insurance in 2003. Now universal healthcare coverage is available to 95 per cent of the population.
Commercially-driven private healthcare has grown in tandem. Both cater to medical tourism, but based on their different models of business.
Turkiye received more than 1.25 million medical tourists in 2022, showing an increase of 87 per cent in their numbers from 2021, according to information on the website of International Health Services Company (USHAŞ).
Ankara-based USHAŞ was established in 2019 by the Ministry of Health to help the country reach its medical tourism goals.
Turkish medical tourism revenues in 2019 were $1.1 billion and reached $2.1 billion in 2022.
Actual medical tourism revenues may have been as high as $5 billion last year since many hospitals, clinics, and companies acting as agents do not report their earnings.
The next big target is to earn $10 billion per year from this sector.
Starting in the early 2000s, Turkiye witnessed more than $50 billion investment in hospitals and technology over a period of 15 years, giving it the necessary infrastructure to start attracting foreign nationals seeking medical treatment.
Many of them come from Arab countries.
Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco and Sudan are among the countries seen as potential major sources for medical tourists.
Because Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya and Izmir are major popular holiday destinations, these cities are also promoted as centers for treatment in areas such as cardiovascular care, organ transplants, dentistry, and plastic surgery.
Bringing down the language barrier is key to connecting with patients and Turkiye has a good pool of professionals with multilingual skills.
“In their health tourism units, Turkish hospitals employ staff who speak English, Arabic, Russian or Georgian,” said Mustafa Akman, an MD in pediatrics who has treated patients from the Gulf Arab region.
Arabic-speaking immigrants have discovered new employment possibilities in hospitals. Nearly all health centers have Arab assistants or translators to assist patients.
In addition, the expansion in business has encouraged hospitals to hire physicians of Arab, Iranian or Pakistani origin in order to draw in more patients from the Middle East.
A number of reasons make Turkiye attractive to people looking for medical treatments abroad. The most important ones are: lower costs, quality treatment, and easy air links with major cities of the Middle East and Europe.
With more than 1,400 authorized health services providers and 250 companies handling medical tourists, the healthcare sector is now well organised.
Treatment packages are a great advantage offered by Turkish hospitals and clinics.
Turkish hospitals provide health packages that include hotel transfers, city transportation, lodging, and surgery costs.
“Patients prefer to pay a fixed amount covering flight tickets, accommodation and treatment costs. This way, they know that they won’t face unexpected costs,” Akman said.
Harun Çelik, who runs a dental clinic in Istanbul, the quality of surgical operations in Turkiye is well known to people in the Gulf.
“Price is an important factor but if you do not offer patients quality care, they will never come,” he said.
The Turkish healthcare sector, including public hospitals, have intensified promotion efforts through trade exhibitions and bilateral agreements in a number of countries in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
In August this year, healthcare tourist sector companies from Turkiye and Arab countries gathered in Istanbul for a two-day industry exhibition. Organized by the Turkish-Arab Countries Business Association (TURAB), the first Expo Health Tourism aimed to boost cooperation between the two sides through joint efforts.
Ahmed El Sobky, Egypt’s deputy minister of health and population, at the trade fair highlighted the close links between Turkiye and Arab countries.
There is also growing interest from Arab investors to buy Turkish healthcare companies and invest in medical equipment makers and technology developers.
Also, Arab patients and their attendants do not have to worry about dietary considerations in Turkiye because of the similarities in cuisine, and their religious and cultural sensitivities are respected in the fellow Muslim country.
Turkiye initially began promoting its healthcare services to the Turkish diaspora in Europe but infrastructure growth has enabled it to offer services to include more countries, including Russia, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Being next to the Arab region, it is natural for Turkiye to reach out to Arabs seeking medical treatments abroad for various reasons.
The popularity of Turkish soap in the Arab region exposed more Arabs to Turkiye as a destination, which helped the medical tourism sector as well.
The healthcare promotion strategy is encapsulated in a statement Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made while inaugurating a large hospital in the northwestern Kocaeli province in April this year.
“We are determined to make Turkiye a global center of attraction in healthcare and not just a provider of services to its own citizens,” Erdogan said.
On the lighter side of the medical tourism business, one area that produces horripilation is the hair transplants industry’s growth. So much has been written about bald men traveling to Turkey for hair transplants that some have called the national airline “Turkish (H)airlines”.
The country has become a major destination for hair transplantation in recent years as the procedures cost as low as one-sixth of what they would cost in Western Europe.
With the Turkish lira’s decline against the US dollar, Turkiye’s cost advantage has grown for various medical treatments. In comparison to Western Europe, Turkish living and labour costs are lower, but medical professionals are highly skilled and hospitals are equipped with advanced technologies and equipment.