NEWS | Sunday, 25 November 2007

I went to Malta and all I got was this boob job

Out with the overpriced restaurants or karrozzini tours, the next tourist trap in Malta will be a breast augmentation. By MATTHEW VELLA

Taking your overweight friends for a day out to the cosmetic surgeon’s and getting them all a liposuction as a sign of your esteem for them sounds like something only Kenny Rogers would actually do – the country singer himself having dealt with his love of fried chicken by having the fat sucked out of him, and his friends regularly.
But health tourism, a funny combination that sounds outlandish at best, is indeed a new frontier for the Maltese tourism authorities, who are now marketing the island’s private healthcare services in a bid to capture more from the burgeoning market of European patients fleeing their public healthcare system’s long waiting lists. They could be lucky enough to win ‘a pert pair of boobs’ in Malta, an unlikely gift, but surely better than winning ‘an eye-opening cataract operation’ – if you’re a woman of course.
But a million-lira market is now being eyed by private clinics and the Malta Tourism Authority who, buoyed by low-cost flights, excellent healthcare services and the accessibility of English-speaking Malta, want to take a piece of the cake which Asian countries and others like Belgium and Hungary have been enjoying for some time now.
It’s not only cosmetic services that are on offer, but an extensive list ranging from blood tests to diagnostic scans, dental services, complex cardiac surgery, knee and hip replacements are being offered in the MTA’s one-stop shop for patients, who like some 70,000 Britons already, are fleeing the NHS waiting lists and the threat of MRSA superbugs.
Why Malta should be capitalising on this sort of niche tourism is evidently clear. Its high level of medical expertise, with doctors having earned extensive experience in some of the best hospitals abroad, and the warm climate make it the ideal location for health tourism.
India, for example, is one of the countries where many British patients have sought quick treatments instead of having to spend years on a waiting list for the merest of operations such as those for cataracts or hip replacements. Other countries taking on the medical competition are as far flung as Malaysia and South Africa.
But Malta is closer, safer, and more accessible to these patients. Although India has an edge over the competition for its cheap prices and medical professionals trained in the UK, it is also true that patients from the west can be put off by the generalised perception of low hygiene and squalor in India. It is inevitable that the longer the waiting lists for foreign national health services, the greater the chance for Malta to capitalise on the market, because its three-hour flight from the UK is generally more welcome than the long haul to New Delhi.
And it’s a lucrative market. The Confederation of Indian Industry for example estimates the business will be worth €1.68 billion (Lm722m) by 2012.
Historically, medical tourism is new generation stuff for Malta given its past reputation as ‘the hospital of the Mediterranean’. The advent of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1530, known as the Hospitallers, led to the establishment of a hospital in Vittoriosa, later transferred to the Sacra Infirmeria in Valletta in 1574, at the present site of the Mediterranean Conference Centre. It was renamed the Grand Hôpital when Napoleon seized the island.
But it was the British who subsequently established more hospitals that could take in the sick and injured troops from nearby campaigns. Churches started being used to supplant hospitals like the Santo Spirito and the Saura Hospital. Places such as the Zejtun residence of the Dutch Consulate Count Agostino Formosa de Fremeaux and the Zabbar residence of Bishop Labini also became hospitals when the British took over in 1800. During the Crimean War of 1854-1856, Malta was turned into an outpost for wounded soldiers. By the time of the First World War, Malta had earned the moniker of the ‘nurse of the Mediterranean’ with 2,500 officers and 55,400 troops from the Gallipoli campaigns being treated in Malta, and 2,600 officers and 64,500 troops from the Salonika campaigns brought to the island for treatment.
With large fragment wounds, lodged shrapnel pieces and gunshot wounds no longer the kind of injuries Malta’s medical services will be treating, today boob jobs, nip-tucks, and hip replacements represent the sort of business the island is aiming for; and the Malta Tourism Authority has latched on to the market with a specialised website that closes the gap by allowing prospective patients to surf the net and instantly book accommodation, flights, and clinics at one go. With low-cost airlines to Malta pushing the costs of travelling further down, the island is set to gear up on the competition for the sun-jaded and convalescent tourists that Europe’s weary public healthcare services are churning out.


MTA medical tourism


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