Can Russia Become a World Center for Medical Tourism? – Part II

Dear Readers:

Continuing with this piece by Nikolai Protsenko. The topic is medical tourism, and the plans of the Russian government to develop this sphere as an important revenue stream for the Russian economy.  We covered the three major areas, namely (1) high-end high-tech services such as neurosurgery and oncology, (2) dentistry (=stomatology), which can be packaged along with other typical tourist activities, and (3) resort spas such as mineral baths.

Oleg Salagai

Russia already gets a lot of tourists from the “near abroad”, including post-Soviet countries.  The plan is to continue to develop this customer base, while also attempting to expand; and attract customers from farther abroad.  Only then can Russia become truly competitive on the world arena.  This process is still at the beginning stages.  According to Deputy Minister of Health Oleg Salagai, around 60% of the foreign medical tourists arriving in Russia, are citizens of Central Asian countries.  Another 37% hail from Europe, which includes Belorussia.

Salagai is a typical example of the modern, over-achieving Russian functionary, with several degrees under his belt.  He was born in 1983 in Irkutsk, which is way out there in Siberia.  He graduated from the Irkutsk State Medical Institute in 2005, and then a year later got a second degree in Law.  In 2010 he graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then a year later a Master’s Degree in European Law.  With all of those credentials, he is perfectly situated to represent Russian health and legal concerns in international organizations.  For example, he worked on the fight to end tobacco use.

Natalia Belyakova

Next we move on to another expert, her name is Natalia Belyakova.  Her specialty is the marketing of international tourism.  Natalia is also highly educated, with a Masters in “Education Management”, and is currently working on her phD.  She is a highly respected consultant whose specialty is corporate branding.  In her spare time, her hobbies including learning Italian.  As her photo shows, she always dresses with impeccable fashion, as one would expect from somebody in the Hospitality business.

According to Natalia, the market for medical tourism has great potential, “but you must take into account that we came rather late to this business.  In the far abroad, the markets for medical tourism are [already] divided up among the countries who specialize in various services.”

Take Italy for example.  Annually around 300K Italians fly out to receive medical services, but mostly they head for Croatia.  Which is right next door and has been investing in this sector for many years now.  Plus, there is no language barrier to speak of [I think she means that all the Croatians speak Italian], and the Croatian services are very reasonably priced.  Historically, the European countries have set down stakes in certain specialties.

A hair-transplant clinic in Istanbul, Turkey

For example, Israel has come to specialize in reproductive medicine and oncology.  Germany specializes in cardiac surgery.  Turkey specializes in hair-transplant tourism.  In all of these countries the medical tourism business is heavily subsidized by the government.  In Russia, Belyakova points out, the government has not formulated a clear plan of exactly what it plans to offer to these foreign tourists:  “Medical tourism consists of this:  In order to solve a concrete problem with one’s health, a person is willing to travel to the ends of the earth, with the understanding that only in that place can the problem be solved.”

Belyakova delivers a crushing rebuke to those who vaunt Russian medical tourism as it is now:  “When it comes to, say, stomatology, it makes more sense for the tourist to go somewhere closer.  And if we are oriented towards our former compatriots, then of course we are allowed to brag that everybody comes to our sanatoriums;  and up to a certain point we can continue to sell the already-mythological memory of Soviet medicine.  But in principle we will not attract anybody from the far abroad, unless we have a goal-based positioning.  There are suggestions for branding a competitive wellness sector, but we need to properly research just how viable this is as a tourist product.  Antler baths in spas or kumis therapy:  These are wonderful tourist attractions, but will a European person fly all the way here for this, without even knowing whether or not these treatments are effective?”

I have to add a couple of footnotes here to explain Natasha’s mockery of certain traditional “medicines” that are being proposed as tourist attractions.  Kumis therapy obviously refers to the drinking of kumis, a type of yogurt or kefir which truly does include healthy probiotic properties.  But Natasha is right:  It would be easier to just buy it online rather than travel across half a continent to drink it out there in Mongolia.

“You want my antlers, you come and get ’em!”

As for “antler baths”, this one was totally new to me, so I had to google it.  The Russian expression that Belyakova uses is Пантовые ванны (“pant-ovye vanny”).  The word панты sounds like English “panty” but actually means antlers.  To be specific, the soft starter-antlers of young deers which the animals later shed in favor of harder, bonier ones.  This particular species is called the “noble deer” or “maral” in Russian (Latin Cervus elaphus).  Since ancient times these soft starter-antlers have been suspected of having healing properties.  Bursting with young blood and hormones, etc.  Chinese Emperors swore by them, they were convinced the antlers would make them ever-youthful and even immortal.  In ancient times people used to brutally kill the deers in order to get at these things.  Nowadays, people are more humane:  The deers are hunted during a certain season, and have their antlers surgically removed, but the animals themselves are allowed to go on living.  Just sans antlers.  The antlers are chopped up and sold like bath salts; and people bathe in them.  This is a traditional folk medicine, especially in the Altai region of Russia.  And one of the things that is being proposed for medical tourism, although I think Pamela Anderson might have something to say about that.

Anyhow, hopefully this explains Natalia’s crisp mockery of people who believe they can make a million-dollar business out of “folk-medicine” tourism.  Like, coming to Russia to visit some remote primitive village, and bathe in antler salts, etc.  Her point being, that such activities might be part of a broader tourist adventure trip, which includes folk exotica; but people are not going to fly halfway around the world just for that.  [Unless, of course, it turned out that the antlers really worked!]

[to be continued]

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