Although reputed for its healthcare, Switzerland could still do more to attract wealthy foreigners looking for top class treatment, experts believe.
Business and tourism representatives have now clubbed together to form Swiss Health, an organisation to promote Switzerland as a health destination. Among its targets are patients from India, Russia and the Middle East.
Founded by Osec, the platform for the promotion of Swiss businesses abroad, and Switzerland Tourism, Swiss Health is intended to bring together hospitals and clinics which are too small to market themselves on their own.
The idea is to create a strong label, closely associated with the Swiss brand of reliability, cleanliness and quality, said Osec's head Daniel Küng at the media launch of Swiss Health in Zurich on Thursday.
"We're certainly aiming at those markets which have a lot of high net worth individuals who can afford these types of services and who probably do not have this type of service available within their home countries," Küng told swissinfo.
This would include Russia and Middle Eastern countries, as well as surging economies such as India and China. Neighbouring rich Europeans are also a market.
"We believe we have to put ourselves on the map as competent providers," said Küng.
A study on Switzerland's potential in the area, carried out by Zurich-based think tank the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI), pointed to particular promise in complex cases requiring specialist treatment. Discrete Switzerland could also offer privacy to VIPs.
This differs from the "first world treatment at third world prices", policy currently in place in countries such as India, explained Karin Frick, GDI's head of research. Switzerland should pitch itself at the top end of the market, the study found.
Around 30,000 people a year already come to Switzerland for treatment, not including resident foreigners, said experts at the conference. These visitors are said to spend more than SFr1 billion ($84 million) on treatments.
Overall, the worldwide health market should grow by more than ten per cent in the future, Frick said.
"Switzerland is basically well prepared with the treatements you can get in Swiss private and public clinics and it is already a destination for holidays," Frick told swissinfo. "We have to bring this together, also in people's awareness. Cooperation is most important."
Shopping and sightseeing
Switzerland Tourism says there are already links, such as in wellness spa holidays, some of which already include a doctor's checkup. Historically people have come to Switzerland for cures.
In addition, high end patients rarely come alone, with friends and family likely to stay for several nights in a top class hotel, go shopping in Zurich's exclusive Bahnhofstrasse and enjoy the sights. Switzerland Tourism estimates that around 500,000 overnight stays a year already result from health tourism.
Swiss Health's daily operations have been outsourced to Swixmed, a Zurich-based company specialising in foreign patients coming to Switzerland.
It will also help clients organise their stay, taking into account requirements and cultural differences. The cost of a hip replacement, for example, averages SFr40,000, according to Swixmed.
Economics Minister Doris Leuthard has welcomed the founding of Swiss Health. In an Osec statement, she said that it was an important step in marketing Swiss quality abroad.
"The health market will be a decisive location factor in the near future and this association helps strengthen Switzerland as a business location," she said.
The Swiss Hospital Association, which represents 370 public and private health institutions, was also positive. It estimates that foreign patients currently account for around one to two per cent of cases in Switzerland.
"We think it's a good thing that Switzerland's health market is also represented in other countries," its director Bernhard Wegmüller told swissinfo. "We have an excellent quality standard in health care."
swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich
Swiss health system
Approximately 11% of the gross domestic product is spent on the public health care system in Switzerland. The average for OECD countries is 8.8%. (All 2005 figures.)
Total expenditure of health per capita is around $4,000.
There are 321 hospitals in Switzerland (2007). 68% are public, 38% are private. The average stay is 10.9 days.
Cases treated in 2007: hospitals 1.15 million, psychiatric clinics 107,000 and special clinics 209,000.
Source: World Health Statistics 2008, Federal Statistics Office, Swiss Hospital Association