Why Colombia is failing to reach its potential as a medical tourism destination
Close proximity to the USA, advanced medical technologies, excellent medical facilities in friendly but cosmopolitan cities such as Bogotá and Medellin make Colombia look like an attractive destination for medical travelers. However, Colombia continues to fail to meet expectations regarding its potential as a preferred destination for medical care. While accurate statistics on medical travel do not exist, patients continue to flock to hospitals in India, Asia and Mexico instead of Colombia.
While I don’t have a degree in business or marketing, after spending over three years investigating and writing about medical tourism in Colombia, much of the problem is readily apparent. Sadly, these problems have nothing to do with medical treatments or patient care which is equal to or superior to that of most North American facilities in the majority of cases. The problem is customer service.
Customer Service is non-existent
The primary problem is a health care model that is essentially devoid of many of the principles of customer service. This is problematic for Colombian citizens but devastating to an industry seeking to recruit customers from overseas. In a study done several years ago, researchers found that if a person is pleased with the service they received, on average, they tell five people. However, if the person receives bad service, they tell 20. In an internet age, make that more like 100, or 1,000 people due to the popularity of message boards and blogs.
How Colombia can become more competitive
But there are several ways that local hospitals could improve their service models and attract more happy clients.
Invest in the industry
While the government of Colombia (Proexport) and many of the facilities themselves have financially invested millions and millions of dollars into attracting medical tourism – there needs to be an equal investment and commitment to service. A good example of this phenomena is at the Fundacion Santa de Bogotá. In the last few years, Fundacion Santa Fe de Bogotá has invested countless financial resources in upgrading their facility, and adopting the John Hopkins brand in a bid to attract more cash-paying overseas patients. Yet, the hospital divested itself of one of its best medical tourism resources, the former head of the International Patient Center, who was the first point of contact for overseas travelers and was known for kindness, competent service and efficiency. In contrast, the new head of the International Patient Center, has established a reputation for not answering emails, and skipping meetings with American visitors. As the first point of contact for many potential consumers, the International Patient Center fails miserably. But this hospital is just one of several in Colombia that are failing to reach their potential due to logistical problems.
How does this happen? There appears to be a communication breakdown between the marketing department and many of the people who should be instrumental in actually attracting and retaining clients.
If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist – and answer your email
As the owner of a large website on medical tourism in Latin America, I receive frequent emails from dissatisfied clients. The number one complaint is a lack of response to attempted email communications. For someone in another country, or who doesn’t speak Spanish, telephone communication is not a reasonable expectation. If the information isn’t on-line, it might as well not exist. Overseas patients are not going to spend innumerable hours searching for specific information about providers and facilities in Colombia when they can find this information quickly and easily on popular search engines for other facilities outside Colombia.
If hospitals don’t reply in a timely fashion, patients will quickly move on to someone who will. Many of the Indian facilities have customer service specialists who respond in 12 hours (or less). In comparison, I recently received several emails from an American in Medellin who had emailed the International Patient Center at the Clinica de Medellin several weeks ago, and still has not received a response.
When consumers do find English language resources, the information is often rife with spelling errors and multiple inconsistencies. Since this information represents the facility, it gives foreign language visitors a poor impression of what are often otherwise excellent facilities.
Customer service starts at the door
While Colombian security protocols can be daunting in themselves to outsiders, more discouraging is the typical attitudes encountered by visitors after entering the facility. The most notorious of these are the secretaries in many of the doctors’ offices and clinics. While some of these individuals have been pleasant, and welcoming to outsiders, the stereotypical bored yet rude secretary prevails. These nail-filing, eye-rolling employees who often intentionally ignore foreign visitors are a hospital staple in Colombia. Whether avoiding eye-contact while chatting on the phone, or muttering rude comments under their breath; these employees are often a patient’s first impression of medical services in many of the finest facilities in Colombia.
These behaviors along with lengthy waits after the scheduled appointment time, are frequently cited during interviews with international patients.
This isn’t just a lack of courtesy on behalf of lower-level employees, its bad business and it hurts Colombia. These pitfalls shortchange everyone involved in medical tourism; the clients who are turned away (and seek services elsewhere), the doctors seeking to expand their practice, and the hospitals that are losing out on millions of dollars of potential revenue.
Until these problems are addressed, the flocks of patients will continue to travel exorbitant distances to Thailand, India and other destinations that offer better levels of service.