Turkey: Investing in the Future

With world-class medical facilities and attractive pricing, Turkey, which according to the Turkish Healthcare Tourism Development Council is the health tourism’s second-largest market, shows no signs of slowing.

At first glance, it might seem like the success of medical tourism in Turkey is a result of naturally occurring circumstances: its location close to the European market, and its highly regarded hospitals and surgeons. But according to Emin Cakmak, chairman of the Turkish Healthcare Tourism Development Council, the country’s ranking as one of the world’s most popular medical tourism destinations is no accident. In fact, Turkey has actively targeted tourists traveling for medical reasons for nearly a decade.

“We started almost 10 years ago, back in 2000, promoting Turkey as a medical tourism destination,” Cakmak remembers. At that time, the Turkish government had already established a stellar track record of supporting its healthcare industry, investing billions of dollars in hospitals and training for doctors. Then, in 2001, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had the unexpected consequence of further improving Turkey’s medical status. “[Turkey] had been sending young doctors to England, America and Germany for a higher level of education,” Cakmak says. “So many doctors, over 10,000, returned back to Turkey after 9/11. So we had about 10,000 highly educated doctors, as well as investments. Things joined together, and Turkey became the main hub in the Middle East for a healthcare destination.”

That success has continued into the present, and as medical tourism becomes more and more popular worldwide, Turkey continues to earn a large share of the increased business. Cakmak says that in 2009, more than 357,000 patients traveled to Turkey from international destinations to receive medical treatment. By contrast, in September of 2010, that number had already reached 500,000—and climbing. “By the end of the year, we expect to have almost 650,000 patients to Turkey,” he says, “and in 2015, our target is to reach one million tourists.” The increase in medical patients is expected to bring 10 billion dollars to Turkey, much of which will no doubt be reinvested in its healthcare system. “There’s another $10 billion in the pipeline for 16 or 17 hospitals,” Cakmak says.

The Turkish Healthcare Tourism Development Council capitalizes on the country’s world-class medical care by making it easy for clients and agents to find medical facilities and doctors they can trust. Among its 96 members, 36 are hospitals and 14 are medical spas; all must adhere to strict codes determining practices and medical ethics to remain in the council. Thirty-nine of Turkey’s hospitals, many of which are members of the council, are accredited by Joint Commission International (JCI), an organization that sets standards for health care organizations to ensure health care quality and patient safety. “The quality of our hospitals is really high. All equipment is new, hygienic and clean,” Cakmak says.

Many hospitals have also begun providing education for nurses and medical staff in the English language, as well as cultural sensitivity training to minimize the “foreign” feeling clients may feel so far from home. “They learn how to act with foreign patients, how they can touch them, speak to them. That’s an important issue which we are doing as a health cluster as well,” Cakmak explains.

The quality of care in Turkey is undoubtedly the biggest reason that international patients travel there for treatment, but there’s another factor that can’t be overlooked: the price. Cakmak gives the example of liver transplant surgery. “The cost of this operation in the U.S., with the same doctor performing the surgery in the U.S., can be $1 million,” he says. “The same doctor performing the same operation here is $100,000.” And for uninsured Americans, that pricing continues across the board. “Another example is an uninsured American paying $100,000 for heart surgery. In Turkey, the cost is $25,000, including business class flights, companions coming along on Turkish Airlines and accommodations for 15 days,” Cakmak quotes. That price is due in part to Turkish Airlines’ membership in the Turkish Healthcare Tourism Development Council. Clients flying from the U.S. enjoy a 25 percent discount on Turkish Airlines flights, including codeshare flights to its hubs.

The other Turkish Healthcare Tourism Development Council members are travel facilitators: hoteliers, tour operators, travel agencies and more who can assist with the non-medical details of a client’s trip to Turkey. Many of the more involved procedures popular in Turkey, such as heart surgery or chemotherapy, require extended stays for follow-up appointments. Travelers can spend these stays traveling within Istanbul, or visiting other cities on cultural or religious tours, Cakmak says. And even clients with less-involved procedures, such as laser eye surgery, can take advantage of sightseeing. “An eye surgery patient coming with glasses can have the operation in our hospitals in the morning, and that same day in the afternoon we can give him a sightseeing tour to Istanbul’s historical places—and he is seeing these sights with new eyes, for the first time,” sure to be an unforgettable experience, he says.