Health is wealth, they say. But sometimes health pursuits benefit both the patient's and the doctor's fortunes. Once such case is Hungary's burgeoning wellness industry and a small-but-growing niche for foreign patients.
When comedy actress Chris Reuter decided to travel from Berlin to Hungary for a complex dental procedure, little did she realize that she was about to set a tiny economic engine in motion. At least one airline, one hotel, a few restaurants, the spa centers, her dentist, and the German agency who organized her trip all got their share of the cake. And let’s not forget the publisher of the goulash cookbook she’s taken home as souvenir.
Medical tourism is expected to grow exponentially, according to a study published by the European Parliament, especially since 2014's European Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare, which allows EU citizens to receive medical care in any other member state. In the meantime, the revenues generated by health tourism at the EU level total about €47 billion ($54.3 billion), which represents 0.33 percent of the overall GDP of the 28 European Union states.
For Reuter, the decision was simple, although she had never been to Hungary before: lower prices for her new smile, high medical standards, "greater respect for pain," doctors who speak fluent German. And all this in Budapest’s spectacular setting. Reuter’s German health insurance had nothing to object to, since her choice led to a good deal for them, too: "There were no problems at all with the health insurance. The clinic in Hungary sent the estimate of costs to Germany and I received the permit per fax on the same day. The costs were covered exactly as if I had done it in Germany," the actress told DW.
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European 'mecca' for dental treatments
Hungary has long been an attractive destination for tourists seeking medical care and wellness treatments. But in recent years it has become the European hot spot for dentistry, at least for Western and Northern Europeans, who generally have to pay about 50 to 80 percent more for a dental treatment at home. Reuter’s treatment in Budapest has been arranged by "Zahnklinik Ungarn," a German agency based in Potsdam, which has already facilitated over 20,000 trips for German and Swiss patients' dental treatments in Hungary.
With 6,083 employed dentists in 2016, according to statista.com, the number of dental clinics is on the rise in Budapest, but also in other towns closer to the Austrian border. The small town of Mosonmagyarorvar, with a population of roughly 32,000 inhabitants, has managed to make taking care of teeth big business: the town has set a world record with the highest density of dental practices per capita: in 2014, over 150 practices and three big dental clinics were ready to receive patients. And the offer is perfectly customized: most of the personnel speak English and German: "I was very impressed by the clinic," Reuter remembers. "The people are extremely nice and they all speak German. You’re being treated like a private patient."
Money isn’t everything
The feeling of being treated like a private patient has also been drawing Iasmina Garbici, an economist from neighboring Romania, to the clinics in Szeged, a city in southeastern Hungary. "I’ll always choose to go to the doctors in Hungary," she told DW. "I’m scared of the high incidence of hospital-acquired infections in Romania. Besides, the Hungarian clinics have better technology and I’m highly impressed by the professionalism and friendliness of the staff – from doorman to director."
So at the other end of the country’s map, the Hungarian medical system offers customer-tailored services for a different clientele: "At the clinics I’m going to, almost all patients are Romanians. Some of the staff has learned Romanian, but if they can’t explain something, they would just use Google Translate," Iasmina recalls.
The living standards are higher in Hungary than in Romania, so unlike in the case of German or Austrian medical tourists, costs are not an incentive for the Romanian patients seeking treatment in the neighboring country.
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Bathing where the Romans did
But every cent is well spent, says Lorena Garoiu, a Romanian painter who regularly goes to Budapest. She’s chosen a different type of healing: spa therapy. "The thermal waters at the Gellert Baths have been beneficial for my two slipped discs. I’ve felt an improvement from the very first time. Those waters really have healing properties," Lorena told DW.
In fact, 60 percent of the tourists coming to Budapest choose the city for its wellness and spa offers, Szilvia Czinege, head of marketing at Budapest Spas, told DW. Not only is the country a hot spot for dental clinics, but in Budapest alone, there are over 100 natural springs, some of which have been in use since ancient Roman times.
In 2017, the country welcomed 2.5 million medical and wellness tourists, according to the Hungarian Statistical Office (KSH). Plastic surgery, laser eye surgery and obstetrics are also popular among foreign health tourists coming to Hungary.
The Berlin comedy actress decided to return to Budapest with her husband for a follow-up visit one year later. No dental drills this time, only architecture, spa and goulash: "The procedure has been a success. My doctor in Berlin is quite envious because he doesn’t have to repair anything," Reuter told DW.