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Health Tourism - Growing stronger by Shoks Mzolo

It costs a staggering US$250 000 to have a bone marrow transplant done in the US. In SA terms, that is R2,45m. The mere mention of such a huge number is enough to make anyone sick. Long waiting periods, which some developed countries are known for, is another problem.

But, as the Americans and others who spend bundles of cash on medical procedures have discovered, countries such as SA and Cuba have some world-class health-care facilities and charge much lower prices. For instance, a bone marrow transplant would set you back $75 000 (R735 000) in SA, according to data from Serokolo Health, a four-year-old local health tourism operator.

For a knee replacement, expect to pay a cool $22 000 in the US and up to 14 000 (or close to $20 100) in the UK. It costs $9 000 in SA. But India and Cuba are more price-competitive - there you pay just $6 000.

But, as Denise Hoogervorst of Surgical Bliss points out, SA stands out because "we speak English, we have several tourist attractions and with a weaker rand we're attracting more people".

An article in the US newspaper Miami Herald says India has other hurdles. Quoting a North Carolina man, it describes the New Delhi hospital he went to as "a bit shabby". It notes there was no air-conditioning and some nurses touched the patient without gloves: unheard of in SA's private sector, which hosts medical tourists in private facilities run by companies such as Medi-Clinic and Netcare.

The number of patients from rich nations spending their money on health care in SA shows a solid ly upward trend. People come here for a host of treatments including rhinoplasty, knee replacements and liposuction, which Hoogervorst says is "quite popular" on the cosmetic side.

While recuperating, patients can sit back at their hotels or executive wards, go shopping, go on bush safaris or visit the usual tourist attractions: Robben Island, Soweto, Table Mountain or the Kruger National Park. Tailor-made packages, even coupled with air tickets and medical procedures, tend to be lower than it costs to have such operations in rich countries.

And by the time patients go home, bandages have already come off. That's another plus in terms of privacy.

Given that the credit crunch is dampening virtually every aspect of our lives, you'd expect tourism to slow down.

But the local health tourism industry is booming, says Dental Retreat SA marketing & tourism executive Gary Malin. He and his wife Benita established Dental Retreat with seed capital of R50 000 late last year. On the surface, its launch, and that of Surgical Bliss, might seem ill-timed. However, this company - specialising in dental treatments such as crowns and veneers - has made its presence felt and now attracts patients from as far afield as the UK, Japan and Cameroon, says Malin.

According to Serokolo MD Tshepo Maaka, an estimated 260 000 people visited SA for medical reasons last year, which puts it in the same league as the Philippines but behind market leaders India and Thailand. "We've received lots of requests from Nigeria. No-one is saying: I'm not coming to SA because of the economic crisis'. Because health is at stake, people will travel despite the credit crisis," says Maaka, a medical practitioner who entered the market in 2004.

Adds Malin: "Last month we hosted more than 10 patients, mainly from the UK and Nigeria. The number of inquiries we're receiving keeps growing."

Maaka describes Nigeria as "low-hanging fruit", but says Nigerian patients are kept away from SA by crime, xenophobia, red tape and safety issues. She says Serokolo's earnings took a pounding after the xenophobic attacks last year.

On the regulatory front, Maaka wants government to implement a medical tourism policy and make it possible for travellers to get health visas, which would largely simplify the way the industry operates.
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