Medical tourism boosts health of Turkish economy

"I can spend as much as I want," said Emin Çakmak, chairman and founder of the Turkish Healthcare Travel Council (THTC), referring to the budget allocated by the Turkish government for promoting the health tourism industry abroad.

"Well, there is a budget," he clarified, "but it is so big that I am spending a lot of money, and it never ends. Whatever I plan to do every year, I get to do it, and there is still money left."

"We use the budget very efficiently," said Çakmak, sitting behind his desk at Hello Travel, the small travel agency he created in 1990.

Few countries can have such state support for medical tourism. "Whatever you can think of in terms of marketing, we have it: TV advertising, magazines, exhibitions, conferences, workshops, international medical tourism events," said Çakmak, who is also running for the presidency of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TÜRSAB).

Contrary to what many believe, foreign patients not only come to Turkey for hair transplants. "The majority of our patients come for oncology treatments, they make up around 32 percent of the cases," Çakmak said. "In the last 40 years, neighbouring countries have suffered from wars and chemical explosions, like Chernobyl, and have been heavily affected by this. A lot of Russians and Iraqis are coming for oncology treatments," he said.

“Even if they declared there were no chemical attacks, all those weapons are affecting the soil, and ultimately, people's lives."

Çakmak said Turkey's healthcare system was also well known for its paediatric care, as well as organ transplants. Things had changed, Çakmak said, since the scandals of years past when organs were bought and sold on the black market. "Perhaps 15 years ago things happened, but in the last 15 years the government and the Ministry of Health have been able to control one hundred percent, not 99 percent, one hundred – all the organ transplants," he said.

An ethics board regulates who gets an organ. "We never make transplants for foreign patients if they don't bring their own donors," Çakmak said. That means only kidney and liver transplants are possible for foreign patients in Turkey. "They need to bring their own donor, who must be up to a fourth-degree relative, and convince the ethical board that there is no money in-between or pressure of any kind," he said.

For kidney transplants, foreigners pay between $30,000 and $35,000, while liver transplants can cost up to $90,000 in a private hospital. "There is a fixed minimum rate set by the Turkish Medical Association. University hospitals can charge up to three times that rate, while private hospitals can charge 10 times more," Çakmak said.  

Regarding the payment, patients have two options: private insurance or self-payment. "Mostly, they come and pay cash," he said. This also determines the socio-economic profile of the patients. "They come from every country and have different ages, but of course not everybody can afford it." Foreign patients coming to Turkey are medium-to-high earners, but the THTC expects annual numbers to reach one million patients by 2019, and two million by 2023.

The THTC said that in 2016, Turkey hosted more than 750,000 international patients from 144 countries, contributing $5.8 billion to the Turkish economy.

Levent Uyanıker, owner of International Medical Assistance, and with more than 10 years of experience in the medical tourism industry, said that THTC does not produce statistics. "The Ministry of Health is the only organisation that has the authority to produce this data," he said. Uyanıker also warned that the data is skewed, as "Turkey regards Turks living in other countries, and the temporary refugees who live in Turkey, as 'international patients'".

Some of the foreign patients treated in Turkey are also employees of big companies, such as Coca-Cola or Siemens, deployed in the Middle East or neighbouring countries. "Turkey is the first evacuation country for these companies. In any medical emergency in the Middle East, we evacuate the patient to Turkey in an ambulance jet. We treat them in Turkey and then, according to company policy, we continue the treatment here, or we stabilise the patient and send him to his own country,” Çakmak said. 

This is possible due to the massive growth of medical facilities in Turkey since the THTC was established in 2005. Çakmak came up with the idea after visiting Kuwait, where he learned travel agencies were assisting travellers to Germany or the United States for medical treatment. "Why not Turkey?" he wondered.

By the time Çakmak presented the project to then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2010, medical tourism in Turkey was growing at an annual rate of between 25 and 35 percent.

The success of Turkey as a regional medical tourism destination is down it being an affordable country with high-quality treatment. The government's support plays a large role in this, with more than $30 billion invested in new hospitals and technology, both public and private, in the last 10 years. Also, it has become increasingly difficult for many Middle Eastern patients to obtain a visa for treatment in the United States.

Turkey is also becoming more accessible. According to a new government plan health visas will be issued to patients and their relatives and in the case of long-term treatment, they will be given a residence permit.