Turkish parliament has approved the establishment of the state-owned International Health Services (USHAS) to promote the country’s health tourism abroad and to fully realise its potential.
The Turkish parliament in late July approved a bill to establish the International Health Services (USHAS), an institution with the goal of helping Ankara regulate and promote the country's health sector.
The USHAS plans to present the services and opportunities provided by the Turkish medical sector to the international community. It also co-ordinates the operations of both public and private medical organisations and supports them.
With the launch of the USHAS, Turkey also aims to fully develop the potential of its healthcare sector.
Starting in the 2000s, Turkey has made numerous investments in the health sector to increase the standard of medical services provided to attract people from around the world.
Booming healthcare sector
Medical tourism has become a booming sector in Turkey with 700,000 people visiting the country in 2017, head of Istanbul International Health Tourism Association (ISTUSAD) Emre Ali Kodan said.
In 2008, around 75,000 health tourists visited Turkey and that figure has increased tenfold in 10 years, he added.
"We expect 850,000 visitors for medical tourism in 2018, it [the figure] may approach a million."
The chairman of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TURSAB), Firuz Baglikaya, said the aim was to increase the number of health tourists visiting Turkey to two million under the country's Vision 2023 plan.
He said the size of the global health tourism market was approaching the $100-billion mark and added that 11 million people travelled around the world to receive treatment and healthcare.
Baglikaya said, “[The] health sector has been growing [by] 25 percent every year. Spending on healthcare per person is about $6,500 in the world [on average in a year].”
He added that under Turkey's Vision 2023 plan, $10 billion had been set for the thermal health sector alone.
In 2016, about 700,000 hair transplant surgeries were performed around the globe. Some 100,000 of those were done in Turkey.
Advisor to rector of Istanbul Technical University, H Omer Tontus, who is also the author of many articles on health tourism in Turkey, told TRT World, “Health tourism hasn’t reached its full potential in Turkey yet, and one of the reasons is that the sector is managed by more than one institution.”
According to Tontus, the new USHAS bill aimed to bring all activities related to health tourism under the same roof and to manage all operations.
"Thereby, it gives very [good] benefits for the sector. Many bureaucratic procedures can be bypassed to benefit the sector as was the case of national carrier Turkish Airlines," he said.
Tontus also thought that Turkey would consider expanding not only the services offered in hospitals but also in the rehabilitation sector's thermal zones and elderly care centres.
“If Turkey wants to reach $20 billion under the vision of 2023, emphasis should be laid on thermal tourism and the sector should be expanded by integrating additional medical services into it.”
He added that because the diagnostic equipment for MRI, tomography and ultrasound were imported, the profits from health tourism were ploughed into purchases from abroad. However, in the case of thermal tourism which did not rely on imported equipment, all profits from that sector could be channelled back into the domestic wellness industry.
Elaborating on the benefits reaped by the state from the medical sector, Tontus explained that if a person visited Istanbul for a hair transplant, only the payments made to the hospital were as counted as pure profit, but the expenditures for the person accompanying the patient were only considered as indirect revenue, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO) accounting rules.
Significance of Turkey
Tontus said that it was difficult to know how big Turkey's medical tourism sector really was as compared to the global market, because exact figures were hard to come by. However, Thailand and India were considered to be key players in this field. But he said Turkey had a sizeable health tourism market, and could be considered among the top five players in the sector.
“Today, open-heart surgery is carried in 107 countries and remarkable cancer surgeries can be operated in 80 countries. If we look from this perspective, there are lots of countries who can get their piece of the pie,” Tontus said.
Turkey has an edge in the global market compared to many countries for the following reasons:
Specialities and capabilities in healthcare: Under the Health Transformation Program, which began in 2003, Turkey has become one of the world's leading countries in the healthcare sector.
Turkey has succeeded in attaining high standards both for its hospitals and healthcare professionals with help of the programme over the past decade.
The Ministry of Health audits all hospitals twice a year in accordance with quality, safety and service standards together with a national accreditation system.
In addition to national quality controls, numerous health facilities also have an accreditation from international organisations such as the Joint Commission International (JCI) and ISO 9001 certification. Most of the facilities also offer five-star accommodation.
International patients receive a wide range of procedures such as robotic surgery, cyberknife, 3 Tesla MRI, nuclear medicine and organ transplants by expert doctors and surgeons.
The Turkish government has introduced huge city hospital projects, offering high-tech equipment in well-organised health centres across the country. Currently, five city hospitals with a 5,000-bed capacity have been built. And at the end of the year four more hospitals with 10,000 beds will be added. Bids for seven city hospital projects in several cities have been submitted and are being processed.
For example, one of the aforementioned facilities, Ankara Bilkent City Hospital, will be the largest health facility in Europe when it opens later this year. It has 3,704 beds including 44 suites, 22 grand- and eight-king suite rooms. And it has 128 operating theatres, 1,011 policlinics and 700 intensive care beds.
Low prices and waiting time: Turkey provides better quality treatment at lower cost compared to Europe, the US and other Western countries. Certain surgeries are 90 percent cheaper than in the West.
For example: heart-valve replacement costs $170,000 in the US but $17,200 domestically. Turkey is not only cheaper than the US and Europe for such treatments but also beats Asia.
"The cost of angiography is $47,000 in the US, $13,000 in Singapore, $11,000 in India and $10,000 in Thailand, while $5,000 in Turkey," Kodan said.
He highlighted that in Turkey, the waiting time for such procedures was a maximum of two weeks compared to up to18 months in Western countries.
Marketing strategies and campaigns: Many private travel agencies both in Turkey and abroad are working on health tourism. They generally offer an all-inclusive package, with treatment, transportation and accommodation at a lower cost compared to similar packages in other countries.
Ethnic Turks living in Europe are also among those who mostly visit Turkey for medical tourism.
Geographic location: Nearly one billion people from Ireland to India can reach Turkey in around four hours. The national carrier, Turkish Airlines, has direct flights from 57 countries.
Turkey's location is definitely a factor for people considering health tourism in the country.