The patient is collected by car from Malaga airport early in the morning, and taken to a clinic in a luxury residential complex. There, accompanied by relatives, he or she may have physiotherapy after a recent operation, or undergo minor surgery which does not entail a long stay in hospital. For many foreigners, this is how their ‘holiday’ in Marbella begins. This is health tourism, something which is gaining importance in the sector and contributing greatly to local development. It has, however, evolved from the traditional concept and now even oncology, traumatology or fertility treatments are available. It is a market which is experiencing unprecedented growth.
The Costa del Sol is already one of the most popular destinations in Spain and the climate, easy access by land, sea and air and a focus on luxury make the Marbella area perfect for health tourism. Numerous private clinics are now promoting their exclusive services abroad, and the response is helping to generate year-round tourism and attract patients from all over the world.
According to figures from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), health tourism generates revenue of 75 billion euros a year around the world. In 2012, Dr Miguel Such was involved in creating the Malaga Health foundation, to promote the medical skills of a large group of health professionals in Malaga province.
International health tourism is not nearly as well-known in the rest of Spain, so Marbella has lost no time in making a name for itself as a favourite destination for foreign patients. “All the private hospitals now have a department which works exclusively to attract patients from abroad,” says Dr Such, “and
health tourists spend up to ten times more than holidaymakers.”
The Hospital HC Marbella is a clinic which has been focusing on foreign patients for a number of years. It is located in Puerto Banús, one of Marbella’s most luxurious areas. It only has 12 rooms, and offers exclusive attention to every type of client.
“People feel as if they are staying in a hotel, rather than a hospital,” explains Patricia Jiménez, the head of Communication. Relatives are looked after as well: the HC Marbella has agreements with top class hotels to ensure that patients’ families can also stay somewhere which is ideal to relax. “Our greatest asset, though, is our renowned team of very highly qualified professionals,” Jiménez says.
The famous Dr Hernán Cortés Funes is one of that team. He is the head of the Oncology Unit, where the facilities are state-of-the-art thanks to an international advisory committee.
Another of the clinics in Marbella is the Hospital Quirón, where the number of consultations increases by about 45 per cent in the summer months. The Quirón business group is the biggest medical supplier in Spain and it attends to 20,000 foreign patients a year; it has agreements with over 570 international insurers. It even has a separate wing for foreign patients.
Most of the patients come from the UK, the Netherlands and Finland. One of the clinic’s star treatments, an in vitro fertility programme, costs about 10,500 euros.
The Premium Clinic, meanwhile, is right in the centre of Marbella and is well-known internationally. Its patients mainly come for urological treatments, thanks to the ‘green laser’ it uses to treat prostate conditions.
“About 30 per cent of requests for information are from foreigners,” says Judith López Cantalapiedra, the director. One important factor is knowing what equipment will be needed for the foreign market. A year ago this clinic started offering an innovative hair implant treatment which is used in countries such as Turkey. “We are in regular contact with our counterparts in other countries and they advise us about what to offer,” she says.
Spain is one of the countries which provides the most fertility treatments and Marbella has become a favourite destination for patients in search of this type of procedure, which can cost around 7,000 euros.
The Ceram Hospital, which opened over 20 years ago, is now renowned for its work in this field. Tatiana Benito, the CEO, says the first thing foreign patients want is to be able to speak in their own language. “It makes them feel safer, and here we speak more than ten languages,” she explains.
Most of the patients come from the UK, Arab countries, Italy and Germany. “Here, we can carry out legal fertility treatments which are not possible in some other countries,” says Tatiana. The Ceram likes to get to know its patients before they arrive for treatment. “We have contact with them beforehand so we all feel we know each other, and that helps the relationship,” she explains.
The Ceram Hospital also has agreements with Dutch clinics and the British health system, after the controversial cutbacks in the sector in those countries. “Patients come here because the treatments are much more expensive at home. They like the idea of having a holiday at the same time,” she says.
Health tourists also have other requirements, often depending on their situation and the number of relatives who come with them. They are given assistance in designing a tailor-made stay. “Some people want to be within easy reach of the airport, or they want to stay somewhere with nice views in a hotel with a swimming pool that their children will enjoy,” adds Tatiana. She believes demand for health tourism has grown enormously. “There are more clinics now so we have greater competition, but it hasn’t affected us. The number of patients overall must have multiplied,” she explains.
Although health tourism in Marbella tends to be associated with luxury, patients like to know about prices before making a decision.
“People consider the cost of the flights, the treatment and the accommodation, but they also take into the account the probability of our treatments being effective. When they are here, they can see for themselves that our services and our staff are unique,” says Tatiana.
One five-star establishment in Marbella is legendary. For over 45 years the Buchinger Wilhelmi clinic has been offering a complete range of weight loss and de-stress treatments. It also offers therapies which are greatly in demand among celebrities who come to Marbella every year. The Buchinger’s classic 21-day fasting diet can cost over 30,900 euros. It requires a stay of around one month, so the client has time to adapt completely to the regime, which includes 16 individual days when no solid food is ingested whatsoever.
A stay at this clinic focuses not only on physical health but also on the soul and spirit, whose “real needs” “tend to make an appearance during the fasting process”, say sources at the clinic.
To help clients de-stress, no mobile phones can be used in the clinic or on walks or excursions. Patients are expected to sleep at the clinic every night, unless they have prior consent from the doctor or head nurse. Doctors at the clinic advise people to keep a diary, and do a lot of reading during their stay.
Lack of support
The private clinics in Marbella believe they should have more institutional support to raise awareness of this type of tourism, including in the European Union. The aim, of course, is to attract more patients. “If this sector is to grow, we need political support,” says Miguel Such. “Not even the Junta de Andalucía has shown much interest in this project so far; they don’t yet have the right mentality.”
In general, the health tourism sector in Marbella believes there needs to be more cooperation between the clinics themselves and a considerable increase in the types of medical treatment that can be offered. Together with institutional support, the future of this tourism sector would indeed look healthy.