Portugal’s health service  under fire

Portugal’s ambitious healthcare plans could bring in €400 million every year

It’s an ambitious plan that could see millions pumped into the economy every year from health-tourists attracted to Portugal by cleverly designed treatment packages.
Aimed mainly at the Brits, Germans and French, the ideas were presented last week by Health Cluster Portugal, in collaboration with business association AEP. Now, the way forwards, say the brains behind the project, is “promotion, promotion, promotion…”
Meantime, the government has come up with its own ideas signalling sweeping healthcare changes in Portugal.
A special report in Correio da Manhã reveals that the health ministry is planning a network of “centres of excellence” where transplants, cancers, heart disease – even hereditary illnesses – will be tackled in coordination with the private sector.
The plans may well involve closures that are so universally condemned in the media, but health minister Paulo Macedo stressed these would not affect care levels. Giving the example of cancer of the oesophagus, he told CM that “various hospitals in the country carry out surgeries in the area of oncology” but that specific interventions should be concentrated on one or two national centres promising “the best level of care and the best results”.
“It is not about shutting one service in favour of another”, he explained. “It is about certain very specific competences being concentrated where they obtain the best results”.
For the moment, the government is non-committal regarding a timeline on these changes, or indeed where the centres will be situated. The plans are simply ongoing – with priorities being the “concentration of multidisciplinary treatment” for the country’s most virulent scourges: including cancers of the testicles, rectum, breast, stomach, oesophagus and melanoma.
According to CM, the ideas were powered by recent European legislation regarding patients’ rights to cross-border treatment. The forward-thinking plans presented by Health Cluster Portugal last week also centre on crossing borders.
Healthcare hokey-cokey
In a two-page report, Público newspaper stressed how within comparatively few years Portugal could have Brits flocking here for cataract operations, French patients coming for new hips and Germans taking advantage of knee replacement surgery.
Consultants behind the study “Definition of collective strategy for Portuguese health and wellness tourism” highlight the fact that costs for surgeries in Portugal are often much higher than they are elsewhere (for instance, people having a cataract operation in Germany pay less than half they would have to pay here), but correspondingly low-cost accommodation and other ‘lesser charges’ make all the difference.
“The idea is to structure complementary packages”, explains Público. The study suggests basic packages (four days including surgery, flights, accommodation and physio) all the way to premium choices, taking in 60 days and offering all the basics plus language classes, spa sessions, religious tourism, even golf.
Medical tourism could gross over 19 million euros by 2016, rising to as much as 94.6 million by 2020, say researchers.
Apart from the Brits, Germans and French, Portugal’s sights are on Spanish, Dutch, Swedes and Austrians – but it is the mud-baths and spa centres that will bring in three times more income, and for these, the study’s promoters say they should also work at attracting visitors from the U.S. and Japan.
But for now, calculations have been made purely on the basis of the seven European markets, and these are thought to have the capacity to bring in 314 million euros per year, with Germany leading the way, says Público.
Proactive medical tourism
Another area under analysis is what the study calls “proactive medical tourism”, including infertility treatment and all forms of plastic surgery. For now, Portugal is not considered particularly competitive – except intriguingly when it comes to nose jobs (rhinoplasty), and perhaps dental implants.
“We have the competence, there is a market… we need a reputation”
In interview with Público, Health Cluster Portugal’s executive director Joaquim Cunha said all that is needed to kick-start the lucrative potential for booming health and wellness tourism is promotion. The principal conclusions of the study are that “we have the market, we have competence, but we lack reputation”, he said.
“In terms of medical tourism there is 100 million” to be made every year. “If we include wellness tourism, we get to 400 million. It is not for now, it is work that will take some years. I would say five. We have to be careful. Portugal will be competing against other countries with years in the sector…
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