Iran and the Medical Tourism Map

Iran and the  Medical Tourism Map
Iran and the  Medical Tourism Map

Tourism and health officials in Tehran have yet to make the final decision on how to  capitalize on the medical prowess in developing the country’s underachieving health tourism sector.

In an editorial in the International Medical Travel Journal, made available online on December 9, challenges facing Iran’s gradually emerging medical tourism are discussed. What follows are excerpts from the article.

Once the landmark nuclear deal with the West goes through and removes international sanctions, Iran will be able to take great strides toward becoming a medical tourism destination. Their low-cost and high quality healthcare is already attracting medical tourists from neighboring countries.

However, due to political tensions in the region, the promise of western tourists remains to be seen.

Ironically, local politics and conflict mean Iran is getting business from countries where local medical offerings are poor or non-existent, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly after those countries have seen the withdrawal of foreign military medical centers on which many locals relied for free treatment.

In the last few years official bodies and local hospitals have claimed that Iran gets 30,000 medical tourists plus 200,000 health and wellness tourists, but have admitted that the figures are estimates at best because of the lack of reliable and official data on tourism.

Iran’s Health Tourism Strategic Council has produced rules and regulations for tourist healthcare service centers. Those hospitals and clinics that want to offer health tourism services to foreigners need license from the Health Ministry and the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization.

The government now offers health service training to employees of tourism agencies and encourages hospitals to open international patient wards and centers. Iranian hospitals with medical tourism license from the Health Ministry also arrange airport transfers as well as accommodation.

High cost of private treatment and low quality health systems in many countries in the region means there is a demand for medical services in Iran. Those from Islamic countries are particularly attracted to Iran as they feel more comfortable here than in certain Arab or Asian countries offering similar services.

Geographical proximity, numerous hot and cold mineral springs in various parts of the country as well as low-cost and high quality health services in the fields of fertility treatment, stem cell treatment, dialysis, heart surgery, cosmetic surgery and eye surgery are contributing to new opportunities to health tourism — a growth industry in many countries.

  Problems and Solutions

So far Iran has not been able to attract a high number of health and medical tourists due to a variety of reasons. Tourism in general and health tourism in particular had until recently been overlooked by the powers that be, while poor transport infrastructure and outdated spa facilities are among other difficulties

A serious shortage of quality accommodation, as well as a workforce unaccustomed to dealing with foreign tourists are other drawbacks. Lackluster promotion and marketing of health tourism, poor performance of travel agencies on health tourism both at home and in countries with potential tourists are among other minuses that have put the brakes on this important sector.

Infrastructure problems of old hospitals, shortages of medical equipment due to the international sanctions and limited facilities for health tourists, plus high inflation are seen as other hurdles.

The skewed image of Iran in some biased western media outlets and mud-slinging by politicians and vested interests, tension and chaos in the Middle East have done more than their fair share to scare away and reduce the number of health tourists wanting to travel to the region in general, even though Iran is a politically-stable country also well-known for the hospitality of its people. This is why Iran is concentrating on local and regional markets.

Thanks to its geographical position, the conditions in neighboring countries, reasonable prices and advanced medical facilities, Iran is slowly becoming a destination of choice for regional medical tourists. An increasing number of hospitals in Iranian cities offer medical and healthcare services to foreign tourists. Iran has a reputation for advanced healthcare compared to most countries in this part of the world.

Those supporting the local medical and health tourism industry want the government to make plans to promote Iran in Central Asia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. They want efficient plans to address renovation needs and establishment of health tourism-related regions, facilities and attractions including tourist complexes, hospitals, spa facilities, modern transportation, accommodation, plus access to new technology, the Internet, and international phone services to encourage foreign medical tourists.

In the long-term, there is a pressing need for private sector to take over some areas of health treatment from the state so that the country can improve the quality of services and reduce prices. When the political climate improves, this could also mean attracting foreign firms to provide financial support for health tourism projects.

Another way forward is to issue special visas for medical tourists and their relatives and provide them with concierge services help them with residential and recreational facilities and other assistance they might need including translators.