We’ve all heard stories of patients traveling to foreign countries for a medical procedure and receiving the best possible care from world-class medical specialists. But what many medical professionals forget is that medical care is only part of the total patient experience. How a patient feels during the experience is a critical factor in determining overall patient satisfaction. For many patients traveling out of the country for medical care, particularly American patients, this may be their first experience out of their home country. Culture shock is a very real phenomenon that affects many first time travelers, and is a critical consideration for the medical travel experience.
Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation a person feels when confronted with a lifestyle that’s very different from your own. It is extremely common in people who travel abroad for the first time since they often see habits and values that are very different from the ones at home. Culture shock affects people who assume that certain habits or values are universal when they actually may be very specific to their national or regional culture.
While some degree of culture shock is good because it allows the patient to have novel and memorable experiences, extreme culture shock may be a concern for patients that are worried about safety, hygiene and credible medical care. Medical travelers desire feelings of comfort and security. Medical travel industry professionals should be aware of culture shock and how to soften the impact of cultural variations for their patients.
Clearly, eliminating or reducing culture shock is not always easy. As medical travel professionals, our goal is to ensure safety and quality medical care, while making patients feel comfortable, welcome and upbeat about their experience. Honest, open communication before during and after travel is critical for a successful experience. The more that we can inform and educate patients about potential challenges, the more they will be prepared to fully enjoy the full patient experience.
Over many years of medical tourism marketing for medical organizations around the world, we have witnessed a wide range of cultural variations that impact the patient experience. Following are some of the most common assumptions among American medical travelers.
1. Everyone speaks or understands English.
Even when going to a country where they know English is not the primary language, many Americans assume that everyone they need to speak with will speak English— from the custom’s officer to the taxi driver to the lady janitor at your hospital. Some of them even think that regular people, for example a police officer on the street, will understand them somewhat if they speak to them in English.
One of the best ways to help patients avoid language culture shock and provide your patients with added value is give them access to an English speaking staff member, on location, or at least available by phone, who will be available to them if they have difficulty communicating during their medical care. Providing a number that patients can call at any time (24 hours a day/7 days a week) is an ideal way to instill patient confidence.
2. The United States is at the top of local news and media.
Some Americans are surprised when they don’t hear anything about the United States in the local news. Others feel homesick if they don’t hear about relevant news in the US. You can help these patients by having cable TV in their hospital rooms. If possible, you may consider having American magazines and newspapers in your hospital and waiting rooms, or simply make Internet service available in every room.
3. Everyone flushes their toilet paper down the toilet…right?
In many countries without central sewers, people do not throw their used toilet paper in the toilet. Instead, they dispose of their used toilet paper in a garbage basket near the toilet. In many countries, this is a very acceptable practice. Americans see this practice as anti-hygienic and a sign of general uncleanliness. It is important to explain this practice to your patients, so that they are not surprised and caught off guard. Whenever possible, please use facilities that accommodate toilet paper disposal in the toilet. This applies to hospitals, waiting rooms and hotel rooms.
Does the Customer Know Best?
As medical travel professionals, it’s up to you to know more than your patients and to help them make the best decisions for their trip. Most patients want to save money. That’s one of the primary reasons they travel abroad for medical care. However, it’s important to know when to encourage your patients to spend more money for a better hotel room, a better surgeon, a longer stay to recover to ensure that their experience matches your promise. Don’t assume that your patient’s decision is the best. Ask questions and make recommendations that show your patients that you care and are looking out for their best interests. Remember the basics of relationship marketing: Help your patients come to KNOW you, LIKE you and TRUST you. When you achieve this, you will have earned their business and their respect.
Culture shock is an inevitable part of medical travel. Education though thoughtful, articulate marketing and advertising can help you reduce patient culture shock and attract the best patients for your business. You can learn by trial and error (losing patients and damaging your reputation in the process) or you can partner with the most recognized medical tourism marketing agency in the world… The Goodness Company. We don’t have all the answers…but we generally have the most important ones!