Collage: Nicolás Venturelli Image: Etihad Airways

Passengers with a pre-existing medical condition may feel uneasy about flying, but Etihad Airways is offering services that give them the assurance and all-clear.

Mounting healthcare costs and lengthy wait-lists are among the reasons medical tourism has become a $100-billion business – one booming to the tune of 25 percent year over year, according to a report issued by Visa and Oxford Economics.

With the United Arab Emirates (UAE) expected to record a 9.6 percent growth in healthcare spending between 2017 and 2022 – the highest in the region – it’s no surprise the country is already witnessing an influx of tourists seeking everything from major life-saving surgeries to minor cosmetic enhancements. And now, Etihad Airways is giving medically minded tourists another reason to land in the UAE.

This past summer, the Abu Dhabi-based flag carrier launched two new services to facilitate the journey for those traveling for pre-existing medical conditions: The first is an evaluation service whereby customers can be seen by one of Etihad’s 12 staff doctors to receive a “fit to fly” status within one day. The second sees customers being picked up at their home or hotel, whisked through boarding and accompanied all the way to their destination by a nurse qualified in aviation and transport medicine.

“Medical assistance during air travel is an ever-increasing travel need.” – Dr. Nadia Bastaki, Etihad Airways

“With the increasing rate of medical tourism, medical assistance during air travel is not just a demand but an ever-increasing travel need – whether traveling to Abu Dhabi or abroad to seek treatment for medical conditions or going home to see loved ones,” says Dr. Nadia Bastaki, Etihad Airways’ vice-president of Medical Services. “Both services will help ensure our guests have a smooth and hassle-free journey, greatly removing unnecessary anxiety they may sometimes feel when traveling.”

But if maximum value for money spent is what medical tourists are after, Asian destinations such as Thailand and India – where procedures are a fraction of the cost compared to the already more affordable UAE – may be a better bet. However, these locations can’t compete with the UAE when it comes to hospitality and infrastructure, says Dr. Mishal Al Kasimi, CEO of Abu Dhabi-based Capital Health. “It is a matter of positioning, after all,” Al Kasimi told Khaleej Times. “The UAE would benefit from promoting the country as one medical tourism destination, perhaps with a focus on aesthetics and more complex specialty procedures.”

Marketing these extras is exactly what Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the Medical Tourism Association, did while discussing the trade association’s recent partnership with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, which aims to encourage people from all over the world to come to the emirate for treatment. “The experience isn’t just in the hospital,” he says. “[Attractions in Abu Dhabi provide] a perfect environment because when medical tourists come to a country, they bring their spouse or family members and can spend several weeks in the area.”

And while Etihad’s medical services were introduced to ensure passengers feel at ease when airborne, with IATA reporting that the price of a flight diversion can cost up to $200,000, let’s call this extra layer of assurance an added bonus.

Up and About was originally published in the 8.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.