Friday, March 28, 2008

Israel courts medical tourists

Professor Jose Cohen

By Crispin Thorold BBC News, Jerusalem

Jerusalem is one of the world's great destinations. For generations people have travelled to the city to see the religious sites.

Now the government of Israel is hoping that visitors of a different kind will go to the country.
Israel is marketing itself as a hub for medical tourism.

Long waiting lists and expensive private healthcare have made medical tourism a boom industry. Every year thousands of westerners go to countries like India for quick and cheap treatment.


The Hadassah hospital on the outskirts of Jerusalem is a good example of the facilities and expertise that Israel has on offer.

Among the doctors working there is Professor Jose Cohen, a neurologist who specialises in stroke patients, and came to public attention when he treated the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

"This is a very small country with incredible and amazing medical facilities," says Professor Cohen. "Excellence in medical terms and cheaper treatment. That is what they will get here".

"The treatments that we can provide are much cheaper than the ones that you are going to receive in Europe."

Some patients are already coming from overseas.

Most are from the Jewish diaspora, or even from Arab countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Travelling for treatment

In this country with many immigrants, medical staff are often multilingual.
In one private room I met Ifeadi Chucks and his brother.
They had travelled from Lagos in Nigeria, so that Ifeadi could be treated for leukemia.

He spent weeks on the internet researching private healthcare across the world."They were more open to us. They were interested," he said.

"The cost was also OK compared to that of the United Kingdom and the United States."
The Israeli government hopes that there will soon be more western medical tourists in Israel.

Recently the Health and Tourism Ministries brought out a brochure, promoting the country's health system.

It boasted first-rate cancer care, and described Israel as a "land of milk, honey and fertility".
At the moment, few medical tourism websites feature Israel.

India and Singapore are more likely destinations for people seeking healthcare overseas.

'Flurry of interest'

However, Keith Pollard from the British medical tourism website,, says that after little interest in the country in the past, Israeli companies are now promoting the country aggressively.

"Our website has been running for about three years now, and until the last few weeks we've had no interest from hospitals or providers in Israel," says Mr Pollard.

"But in the last five or six weeks we've seen a sudden flurry of interest from hospitals and clinics."

In Israel, the wail of sirens, and the sight of ambulances speeding to hospitals, are often associated with bombings.

There has been less violence in Israel in the past couple of years than there was during the height of the Palestinian uprising, but as recent events in Gaza and Jerusalem show the threat remains - and that could be a problem for the industry.

Some tension

"When we had here the terror attacks on a daily basis, the medical tourism went down to the bottom," said Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the Director-General of the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem.

"These days, there is some tension, but it is far away, so for patients who need our support it is not a factor."

Some patients' groups also believe that the government and hospitals should focus resources on the treatment of Israelis, rather than on medical tourists.

The hospitals say that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, arguing that foreigners could bring much needed money to the domestic healthcare system.

The work that Professor Cohen, and others in the country, are doing is ground-breaking.

His hope, as well as that of the Israeli government, is that this combination of facilities and expertise will persuade people to travel here for treatment, whatever the security situation.


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