The speech of UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Mr. Gary Lewis at the
4th Conference on Health Tourism in Islamic Countries
Your Excellency Dr. Najafi, Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
Your Excellency Mr. Foruzanmehr, Governor General of Khorasan Razavi,
Mr. Alavi, Vice-President of the Astan-e-Ghods-e-Razavi,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be here on my first ever visit to Khorasan Razavi and the holy city of Mashhad.
I am also honoured to address this esteemed gathering of high-ranking officials and professionals from the Organization of Islamic Conference countries and other guests.
I am quite new to this beautiful country, but not very new to the subject of this Conference.
I have worked with the United Nations for 26 years. And this time has taken me to many lands.
Some of these years were served in hubs for “medical tourism.” First India. Then, later, Thailand. And I drew many conclusions from this experience.
One conclusion was that the globalized nature of our era and the revolutionary boom in communications have both made several parts of the world effective destinations for medical travelers.
The number of people receiving medical assistance in other countries constitutes a huge industry globally.
Global estimates suggest that 100 billion dollars were spent on health tourism in 2012.
This trend is expected to continue – and to expend.
Travelling abroad for medical care takes place for various purposes and in various ways.
But there are two major categories of patients.
First are those who travel to other countries to seek medical services that are not available in their own home countries.
Second, there are those who seek medical care in other countries, even though they can get such services in their own countries. They do this because they can get comparable services at lower prices.
The first category includes those seeking humanitarian assistance. The second category falls under the definition of health tourism.
Now, from what I know about Iran’s health sector, I gather that Iran is a destination for both categories of patients.
While the latter category mainly opt for receiving treatment in private sector health facilities, the former relies more on public sector services – services which are provided without discrimination. Often they are almost free.
Given the higher capacity of Iran’s health sector compared with some other countries in the region, Iran receives cross border inflow of patients suffering some specific illnesses like tuberculosis. This, we know, has created a significant burden, and risk, on Iran’s public health sector, particularly in border provinces, including here in the city of Mahsad.
For over three decades, Iran has shouldered the burden of millions of refugees. And for many years, these refugees have received services – including medical services – without discrimination. Recently, in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency, the Government has even been providing health insurance.
This level of support – over so many years – is something which is not sufficiently recognized by the world community.
Nonetheless, our subject today is health tourism.
And my conclusion, in reviewing the current and potential capacities if Iran, is that Iran can potentially become a major centre for health tourism.
There is a strong medical infrastructure. There is a relatively well-equipped and skilled private sector. Care and treatment costs are reasonable compared with many developed and even other developing countries.
Weather conditions are generally favourable. There is existing demand in the region. There is even the potential for combining both health tourism and cultural tourism.
These are among the opportunities that Iran possesses.
Against this backdrop of opportunities, there are a number of challenges that need to be addressed if the opportunities and advantages are to be translated into real action.
Upper-level strategies and development plans in Iran call for prioritization to health tourism. But, at the same time, there is a need for downstream action to support these strategic goals.
There is a a need to standardize medical practices – a point recognized in the previous three Health Tourism Conferences.
There is need to establish a logistical support network, to realign services according to needs, to disseminate information on available services.
There are also ethical and rights-based concerns that should be taken into full consideration when planning to tap the capacities and resources for absorbing international patients.
Care must be taken to avoid the diversion of care and treatment away from domestic citizens towards international clients. Care must be taken to prevent the escalation of health costs as a result. Care must be taken to avoid the commercialization of the doctor-patient relationship.
As the UN Resident Coordinator in Iran, let me conclude by emphasizing that medical tourism can be a platform to promote cooperation among developing countries. This is what we call “South-South Cooperation”.
This can provide OIC countries with great opportunities to share capacities, to swap professionals and to develop technologies.
And it is in this area that the UN system stands ready to support.
In conclusion, I would say that by sharing its public health and medical expertise – by providing health services to foreigners – by promoting health tourism – Iran can, and I believe will, develop further its already significant public health capability.