Wednesday, August 8, 2012

France - Paris hospitals to court wealthy, foreign patients

Paris's public hospitals are to start using their low cost and high quality care to woo wealthy, foreign patients in the hopes of reducing their deficit.

Facing a £65 million deficit in 2011, public hospitals in the Paris region now hope to cash in on one of their strengths: quality medical care at competitive prices, kept low by a state-run system.

Their new positioning in the market will likely mean more competition for the lucrative, 'travel for treatment' business in countries such as Britain, the US and Germany, which have been traditional destinations for big-spending foreign patients from places like the Middle East, Russia and Asia, often seeking better care for especially complicated procedures.

"Our healthcare system is an advantage for globalised competition," and "a tool of influence," that will "spread the attractiveness of France," said Jean-Marie Le Guen, in charge of health for the city of Paris, speaking about the project to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

Though some travellers already arrange for medical treatment in France, taking advantage of lower, state-regulated fees, until now public French hospitals have done little to actively reach out to those customers, or facilitate tricky administrative and insurance obstacles involved.

That should change soon, thanks to a recently signed contract between the Paris public hospital system and a Lebanese company called Globemed, responsible for escorting patients and organising treatment abroad for Middle Easterners.

Paris hospitals hope to eventually expand their reach to wealthy Russian and Asian patients, and public hospitals in other French cities are also reportedly exploring more cross-border medical business opportunities.

For the inbound British medical traveller business, the French project, "poses a threat," said Keith Pollard, Managing Director for Treatment Abroad, a UK-based guide to medical tourism. Depending on the treatment, Mr Pollard said prices in France can be 10 to 15 per cent lower than in Britain, barring exceptional cases.

However, with "expertise and quality of clinicians and hospitals as the key factor," much still "depends on how good a job the French do of marketing their services," he said. "If France wishes to succeed in this sector, it will not be just about price. Convincing purchasers that quality and outcomes are on a par with the UK and Germany will be very important. Developing relationships with clinicians in referring countries are vital. The UK and Germany also have significant support services which provide 'added value' to the international patient," added Mr Pollard.

London private hospitals generate some 20 per cent of their revenue from overseas patients, and an estimated £280m to £330m is spent annually by international patients seeking high quality treatment in the city, according to Mr Pollard. Limits on the numbers of foreign patients and the money they spend at NHS hospitals were also recently raised, to generate more income, while making them, "more aggressive in their marketing," he said.

The French project still needs to go through some administrative hurdles, including official approval for charging foreigners more than the regular fees paid by residents. It is still unclear exactly how much those fees will be.

Only about 2,300 annual visitors, often from North Africa and the Middle East, currently pay out of pocket or through their own health insurance for French medical care, and the Paris hospitals said they want to limit that number to one per cent of annual patients received.

Devorah Lauter

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