Medical Tourism|22/11/2011

Rethinking hospital tours as a marketing tool

It’s 8 am and I am waiting outside my hotel in Istanbul when I see a group of  US doctors boarding a bus for a day of hospital tours. They look beat and not at all excited about spending a beautiful day trapped inside a bus fighting traffic to see hospitals.  As one told me before he boarded the bus, “if someone shows me one more MRI machine I am going to scream!”.

I know the feeling. I have been on the giving and the receiving end of these familiarization (fam) trips. What starts as something interesting and novel soon turns boring and annoying.  These doctors thought they were going to experience Istanbul, what they didn’t know is they were going to do it from inside a bus looking out.

Fam trips are the the bread and butter of the tourism industry. Tourism operators know how to mix business and pleasure, combining a site visit with lunch, a massage or a game of golf. The idea is simply to give them a ‘taste’ of what you have to offer. A good memory that they can take home.

The problem with hospital tours is that hospitals, by definition, are not places that you want to visit. In fact, it’s safe to say that visiting a hospital is probably the last thing on everyone’s to do list. Walking around watching people in pain get poked and probed with their privates spilling out of their robes is not fun. Never has been.

And the tour itself is boring and always the same. It starts with a visit to the outpatient clinic, then inpatient rooms, the intensive care unit, diagnostics (to see the famous MRI!), and finally ends in a conference room for a 30 minute powerpoint presentation recapping what you just saw on the tour. As a parting gift, you are given a kilo of material you will never read and will throw away as soon as you get back to the hotel.

And this is supposed to generate business?!

Hospitals suck at show and tell, and here’s why.

They forget that people don’t want to take home another brochure; they want to take home a story.

So here’s my unsolicited suggestion to every hospital or doctor looking to market their facility or services.  Tell a good story. A good story is like a good joke; people like to retell it with a twist. It becomes their story and it goes viral.

In my 7 years at Bumrungrad, I gave my fair share of tours. The hospital became a must see attraction for visiting hospital executives, MBA students, journalists, and diplomats. They all wanted to see this place they had heard so much about. My job was to show and tell them something that would make them say “Wow”.

One of my favorite stories was that of the children’s clinic.  In 2002, Curt Schroeder, the hospital CEO at the time, redesigned the children’s clinic with the purpose of making it a place that was fun to visit.

It was unlike anything else in the market.  It had a movie theatre, video games, computers, coloring books, and a jungle gym.  The walls were adorned with fun paintings and the ceiling was painted like bright blue sky. There were staff to take care of the children so that moms could get a break while waiting. Schroeder had not only created a unique space, he created an experience that appealed to both mother and child.

A great showpiece, yes, but that was not the whole story.

The clinic, you see, was formerly the medical records department.  The space now teeming with children was previously dedicated to the storage of paper medical records.  But when Bumrungrad converted to electronic medical records in 2001, there was no longer any need for a medical records department taking up valuable clinic space in a busy hospital.

The story was how Bumrungrad used information technology to turn dead space into live space.

This story worked in so many ways. It showed innovation around design, technology and smart use of space. It showed that how Schroeder not only re-purposed space; he re-invented it. It showed the importance of focusing on the customer (in this case the child), and creating an experience that people remember.

The children’s clinic embodied what made Bumrungrad special. There was no whizz bang technology. There was no powerpoint presentation. There was no MRI machine.

All you saw were kids in a clinic, and they were having fun. Now when was the last time you saw that?

Medeguy disclaimer: This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information. The owner will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information.


  • Thanks Ruben! Rethinking how I am going to package the tours and showcase the essentials…+ golf of course at KLGCC!

  • As espected from you Incisive pertimnet and absolutely correct
    Its not the big toys but the comfort zones that one needs when one is sick
    WELL DONE as usual
    Mike Hall

  • Ruben,

    …and the fire truck wheelchairs (to hang IVs instead of IV Poles)in the children’s unit there is something I haven’t seen since Bumrungrad. Never once in all the tours I’ve taken of Bumrungrad, have I ever heard a child crying in that unit, either.

    I have dedicated an entire chapter to how to design and conduct fam tours in my upcoming book, to be released on December 12, 2011, The Handbook for Medical Tourism Program Development, (Productivity Press) with a different itinerary and suggestions whether the tour participant is an insurer, an non-medically trained facilitator, or a person with clinical background.

    Our inspection team has even coined a new definition for NaCl ( which to most people who graduated high school as table salt, but to us it means “Not Another Cath Lab”.

    One other point, never assume the entourage can handle stairs from floor to floor. Some have bad knees, ankles and may not wish to call attention to themselves and suffer through the climb until they are worn out and cannot pay attention to you anymore. The same with standing tolerances and people with bad backs and knees. Don’t force them to stand in one place for very long.

    I once attended a fam in Mexico where for medical tourism, they took us to the Emergency Room for a 45 minute presentation in Spanish with paragraph-by- paragraph translation.

    What went through my head: “This is the ER Nursing Supervisor and she doesn’t speak English? Do the subordinate nurses speak English? Surely if they did, they would have had one of them do this presentation! The ER? Medical Tourism? Why are we here? Geez, what happens if the nurse doesn’t understand that I need something? Why would a medical tourism patient need to know so much about their ER? Oh, What did she say? Next we’re going where? to the Pediatric ER? Why are we going there? Wow, my feet really are starting to hurt. C’mon Ria, be polite…smile…look interested. Do we have to go to Peds ER? I want to see ortho and imaging. Geez, she’s still talking about the ER? Why is she explaining the trauma cart to medical tourism people? Eew, what’s that on the floor over there, a bloody dressing? Yuk. Man, check out the dust on those lights! Like when was the last time they cleaned those things. They’d be in deep trouble if JCI walked in right about now… Oh, look at the suction container, someone forgot to change that out. Hmmm, when was the last time they stocked shelves in this room? If I were the supervisor in this ER heads would roll. Geez…she’s still talking – He’s still translating! It’s like hearing an echo! My legs are starting to feel like wood. All these brochures are starting to get heavy. Didn’t they have these in PDFs they could have emailed us? Maybe I could escape to the bathroom and go check my email.”

    You get my point!

    Good post Ruben – as always!

  • I can attest to Ruben’s ability to educate and entertain at the same time as I was one of those people who he took on a tour when visiting Bumrungrad. While I don’t remember all the details of my tour, I do remember the children’s area – and remember how the area was painted so it looked like kids were going into doctor’s offices through small little doors cleverly painted on the actual doors. I also remember an entire floor dedicated to the Japanese with translaters and protocols that the Japanese would find familiar and comfortable.

    It seems good advice to make tours more entertaining by making them personal and telling a story…however another major part of Ruben’s success was that he himself is entertaining! I look forward to what I am sure will be upcoming blog posts that will be enlightening and fun to read!

    Glad to see this blog and look forward to future updates.

    • Thanks Susie. As the spa maven behind Spa Finder, I’m sure you have been on your fair share of fam trips, but I get a feeling they always end in a massage.

Leave a comment