Germany rolls out red carpet for medical tourists from Mideast

BONN - CHANCELLOR Schroeder has returned to Berlin after a `deeply emotional' experience at the D-Day ceremonies in Normandy and a "satisfying" result at the G-8 summit in the United States where the old animosity with President Bush has been almost laid to rest.

By M N Hebbar (View From Berlin)

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Published: Wed 16 Jun 2004, 11:30 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:30 AM

The resolution passed by the UN Security Council that will end the formal occupation of Iraq and define the UN role thereafter has admittedly also changed the atmosphere vis-à-vis German-U.S. relations.

Back home, the issue of immigration continues to be a bugbear for Germany, not least for its strong implications of aggravating the already high unemployment that now sees a new threat from cheap labour emanating from the ten new members of the European Union. But harsh reality - Germany is sitting on a demographic time bomb - has prodded the coalition government to take initial measures to opening the country to skilled foreign workers.

A compromise between the government and the opposition - subject to adoption by the upper house next month - envisages the admission into Germany of engineers, skilled workers and highly paid specialists, facilitating the enactment of a modern immigration law. Further, it is expected to release work permits to thousands of foreign students who graduate from German universities each year.

While on the subject, the much-touted `Green Card' programme of five-year residency permits that expire at the end of this year has been a disappointment inasmuch as the 16,000-plus cards that were issued - of this some 2600 cards to Indian specialists - faced an uncertain future in the wake of the end of the Internet "bubble", forcing scores of companies to close their doors, two years ago. Germany's IT market is still in the doldrums.

Fears of increased immigration opening the door to terrorists and their ilk have been quelled by the chancellor's consent to an opposition-backed measure that will have all applicants screened by the security services. The immigration law will primarily benefit hi-tech industries and is expected to partially alleviate the shortage of skilled personnel - estimated at some 75,000 - while contributing to growth and employment.

Medical tourism

THAT good health can also mean good business is being demonstrably proved by Germany's medical system. German hospitals are increasingly drawing patients from Middle East countries that previously went to the US for costly operations. Patients from the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are known to come to Germany for treatment.

If there was anything the September 11 attacks in the US achieved in the medical field apart from the heroic attention devoted to their victims, it was that German hospitals seemed more attractive, both in terms of costs as well as treatment, for patients from the Middle East. And there was geography too.

People now feel less disposed to go to the US or Britain for treatment. Enjoying a good reputation abroad as well as at home, the German healthcare service has drawn attention to its efficient and streamlined hospitals whose economics were more favourable than most of their counterparts in the west. Operation costs and convalescence were relatively cheaper than elsewhere in Europe or the UK, it seems.

Overall costs are up to 40 per cent higher in Britain and up to 70 to 100 per cent in the US. In the German healthcare system, an artificial knee could cost some 9000euro, but the same operation in the United States can cost twice as much, sources suggest.

The German publicity bandwagon is also gearing up for what seems like a "healthy challenge". The German states have begun doing their bit as well. Bavaria, for instance, is known to publish a glossy brochure titled "Bayern Medizin" in five languages - English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Swedish.

With costs of running German hospitals rising steeply and with German insurers paring down the kind of medical services that can be reimbursed for its citizens, medical tourism seems a golden opportunity to help offset the costs. And the German government has chipped in with some help by giving them leeway with respect to the scale of fees chargeable. "It helps the hospitals to pay off some of their debts", says a spokesperson for the Association of German Hospitals.

Official estimates have it that medical tourists from the Middle East spend an average of 30,000 euro, not an inconsiderable sum by any standards.

So the marketing tools are at work. Organisations and hospitals have been streamlining their services. Service agencies have been sending out offers of packaged services, including transfers to and from the airport, translations of medical reports and one-window clearance of medical applications. What is more, the marketing buzz is that entire branches of the medical industry have begun specialising in treatment of customers from the Middle East.

However, all of this may change when the ambitious Dubai Healthcare City eventually takes shape. Planned to be overseen by Harvard Medical School, the sprawling medical campus envisages "training medical staff, directing research and providing quality control" that will likely foster US-style healthcare in a region where medical facilities for the 100 million Gulf residents presently run into some US$ 25b annually, according to local officials. The money can now be profitably spent within the region.

Tailpiece

THE consumer is king, goes the adage. But one wonders if Germany is an exception if the latest ruling by the country's highest court is anything to go by. A case has been brought by the Kaufhof chain of department stores against laws that prohibit stores from being open after 8pm and on Sundays, maintaining that retailers faced unfair competition because of the exemption enjoyed by filling stations, airports, train stations and other places frequented by tourists. The court has ruled that a law regulating shopping hours was constitutional but has added that the federal government could give Germany's states the power to overhaul store-opening hours. The trade unions are celebrating! Well, some things never change.


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