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Swiss health care attracts patients from afar

(Keystone)

The health tourism sector is estimated to be worth SFr900 million ($710 million) per year as Switzerland's reputation for healthcare excellence holds firm.

Up to 30,000 foreigners seek hospital treatment in Switzerland every year, making up two per cent of all patients. A further 150,000 travel here for health-spa holidays.

The country has a long history of medical tourism, dating back to the 19th century when wealthy travellers came to "take the waters". In the early days healing mineral waters promised miracle cures for all kinds of diseases.

Nowadays, private Swiss clinics advertise surgery in in-flight magazines while agencies specialising in organising medical treatment for foreigners offer a deluxe service covering everything from interpreters to visas.

Less medical and more health enhancing, so-called wellness resorts offer a healthy living experience, involving mineral baths, massage and all kinds of relaxation and beauty therapies.

Eveline Lanz Kaufmann has written a book on wellness tourism in Switzerland. She explains that people who come on these visits are not usually ill.

"On the contrary they are still healthy and feel that they should do something to maintain their health. It is mostly women in the 40 to 60-year-old age bracket although the average age is falling."

It is predominantly a German-speaking trend. Most foreign visitors who come specifically for spa breaks are from Germany and Austria, Lanz Kaufmann says.

Pull factors

Top-quality medical treatment or spa facilities are not the only pull factors for those who come here. Patients may also decide to travel for private banking services, to visit children at boarding school, as well as for regular sightseeing tourism.

Jan Sobhani of the medical agency Swixmed explains that the motivations for choosing Switzerland range from prestige value to simple need.

"Some people choose Switzerland because they have long waiting lists for surgery in their own country, or perhaps they have a good healthcare system which is lacking in certain specialities."

This latter category includes increasing numbers of couples coming from Italy to avail themselves of fertility treatment, Sobhani adds. "They like to travel to canton Ticino because there is no language barrier."

"Then there are also those who come from places that really do not have a good healthcare system, such as the former Soviet Union," Sobhani says. The prestige of having treatment in Switzerland combined with the trademark discretion also acts as a magnet.

Networking

Word of mouth and personal recommendation count for a lot in this business. Agencies find patients through a network of referring doctors, hospitals and health authorities as well as family representatives.

"If you have an influential family from Saudi Arabia, for example, they can have 600 people in a family group. Within the family, if you have one person who is satisfied, they will recommend," Sobhani explains.

People travel to Switzerland for a broad range of treatments and procedures, plastic surgery included. One well-publicised patient was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who came to Switzerland for an eye operation two years ago. The late Saudi King Fahd also underwent medical treatment in Switzerland.

Intermediaries can arrange everything for incoming patients and their families, from medical reports, hospital quotes and visas to interpreters, accommodation and transport.

Treating foreign patients can pose certain difficulties for doctors, according to Beat Huber of the association Swiss Leading Hospitals.

"One problem is that sometimes the medical history is not properly reported. It also happens that patients come here with unrealistic expectations."

Huber points out that cultural differences are another challenge, especially for nursing staff who have to communicate more often with patients about their daily needs.

swissinfo, Clare O'Dea

In brief

The Swiss health tourism market can be divided into two sectors: medical and wellness.

Up to 30,000 foreigners per year are treated in Swiss hospitals with a further 150,000 travelling here for health spa holidays.

Patients who travel to Switzerland for medical treatment often have other non-medical reasons for choosing this country.

The Swiss healthcare system enjoys an excellent reputation although word of mouth remains very important for new referrals.

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