Can Kazakhstan compete for medical tourists with some of the top destinations for health care, such as Malaysia, India, Turkey, Brazil and Thailand?

Clearly, the answer is ‘no’.   At least not yet and not in a big way.  But strange as it may seem, Kazakhstan is making some progress in attracting medical patients from both the ‘near abroad’ (the CIS), and the ‘far abroad’.  And the government seems to be backing this development as just one more aspect of promoting tourism in Kazakhstan.

A recent news item on Kazakh TV (April 11, 2017) gives a brief, upbeat report on the growth of medical tourism in Kazakhstan.  Highlights:

  • More than 5,000 patients from abroad came to Kazakhstan for medical treatment in 2016, a 28% increase over 2015.
  • They came from Turkey, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Korea, China as well as other countries.
  • More than 1,500 patients came to Almaty alone to improve their health.
  • Services highest in demand include consultative-diagnostic, neuro- and cardiac surgical care and transplantation services.  Gynecology, traumatology and maxillofacial surgery are in demand as well.

The statistics come from Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development. Unfortunately, those statistics are quite basic, are potentially misleading, and don’t allow for much further analysis.  In particular, they do not distinguish between (i) patients already working on the territory of Kazakhstan (a likely source of many of the medical procedures in my estimation); (ii) those coming from across the post-Soviet space (seeking affordable care where they can communicate in Russian); and (iii) and those who come from the far abroad deliberately for medical care to take advantage of the considerable recent advances in the medical sphere in Kazakhstan at afforable prices (probably exceedingly modest numbers of patients).

It is telling that the tourists mostly come from Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

The report does not mention the fact that some people in Kazakhstan with health care needs go abroad on their own medical tourism adventures.  My guess is that the exodus is a multiple of the foreigners coming to Kazakhstan for health care.

Two years ago, a similar report was put out by Tengri News (December 18, 2014).  It seems that the push to develop medical tourism in Kazakhstan came from subsidiaries of state-owned National Medical Holding JSC.  The state put serious money into medical equipment and personnel, and the authorities probably figured that the investment depended for financial success upon foreign patients.

My assessment of the prospects of growth in medical tourism:  Despite improvements in medical care in Kazakhstan and the relatively low cost of procedures, it is most unlikely that foreigners living in advanced countries will be attracted to Kazakhstan for medical care in the next some years.  This is an area in which medical doctors, specialists and support staff must persevere and prove themselves, and that takes time.  Low cost and claims of the general attractiveness of the entire tourism infrastructure in Kazakhstan count for little when potential patients seek health care outside their home countries. CIS residents and people in less developed countries, such as Afghanistan, are more likely to consider going to Astana or Almaty for operations and other procedures.

In all events, medical tourism is unlikely to account for a significant slice of Kazakhstan’s revenue from tourism.

As an aside, I can’t help but say that there is something incongruous about the term “medical tourism”.  The ‘medical’ part carries negative connotations – pain, cost, disruption in life, fear.  The ‘tourism’ part carries positive implications – fun, new experiences, positive things to talk about upon returning home.  It’s a kind of ‘sweet and sour’ label.

Photo: Rod of Asclepius, ancient symbol of health care and medicine, from internet.


 Book Sales:  Find stories about Kazakhstan from the 1990s and later in my book, West Meets East in Kazakhstan.  It’s available online in softcover or e-book format from AuthorHouse (the publisher), or Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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