Enhanced bustlines and newly minted, sparkling smiles probably aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think of Belarus. But the country has become a minor health-care utopia for Russians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, and affluent patients from other states.
More than 50,000 “medical tourists” came to Belarus in 2016, according to Uladzislau Androsau, the 28-year-old director of medical-tourism operator MedTravelBelarus. This figure is significant considering the meager total of foreign tourists in 2015 that is lower than 300,000, according to Belstat.
Correspondent of Radio Free Europe have looked into the reasons of Belarus’ popularity and its potential as a medical tourism destination.
For Americans, It Is Cheaper To Fly To Belarus For X-Ray
Androsau’s company was founded in 2010. At that time, medical tourism was commonplace for North America. Citizens of the United States and Canada were travelling to Cuba and Costa Rica to save on treatment.
“I realized that we are not worse than Costa Rica”, Uladzislau Androsau told RFE. “Belarus is surrounded by European states, where medical services are much more expensive than here. We did a research and decided to promote medical tourism in Belarus. And the idea proved right.”
His company is one of a growing number of agencies in Belarus that make agreements with hospitals, health-care centers, and clinics in the country to promote them to foreigners seeking cut-rate access to doctors and treatments.
“Dental and cosmetic surgery are the most popular because, first of all, they are not covered by most insurance policies in Europe,” Androsau said. “For example, tooth implants, breast implants,… this is like 70 percent of our incoming patients.”
He cites an example of clients from the USA. To determine the diagnosis, the dentist asked a patient to send him an X-ray of his jaw. In America it costs $1600 while in Belarusthe price is $25. Hence, it is cheaper for a person to fly to Belarus, do a tomography here and fly back.
“Belarusian doctors are really good”, the entrepreneur said. “Surgeons, implant surgeons are up-to-date on global medical trends.”
He names hip- and knee-replacement surgeries as highly sought after, along with cancer treatments, as Belarus boasts one of the largest cancer centers in the former Soviet Union – the N.N. Aleksandrov National Cancer Center outside Minsk.
60-70% Of Medical Tourists Are Russians
Androsau says that 60-70% of his clients are from Russia.
Anton Dryanichkin, 35, travels half the world to get his dental work done in Belarus. The Russian has been living in Thailand for the last seven years. Once a year he comes to St. Petersburg and plans a trip to the neighboring country.
“It’s much cheaper in Belarus, and the quality is good”, Dryanichkin said.
Since 2015, the man has made several trips to the Belarusian Slutsk for dental restoration and cleaning. The same treatment would have cost him three times more in St. Petersburg.
After the first visit to the dentist in Slutsk, Anton returned with his brother. His grandmother will come to Belarus this summer to treat her joints. Anton’s uncle and aunt used services of Belarusian health resorts.
According to Androsau, when MedTravelBelarus was first launched, Russians came seeking better prices. But since the Russian economy hit the skids in 2014, taking the ruble with it, the gap has narrowed between the cost of medical procedures in Belarus and Russia.
Yet the Russian patients continue to come. “We ask them, ‘It’s not such big difference in prices, why do you choose Belarusian doctors?’ And most of them say: ‘Oh, everyone speaks Russian – we go to Belarus, it’s good quality there. My friends, my relatives, they were treated in Belarus and they like everything.’ So now we speak about how our quality is growing”, he said.
Androsau cites “problems” in the health-care system in Kazakhstan as boosting medical tourism from that country. “A lot of people speak about corruption and so on,” he said of Kazakh customers, “so they don’t trust their doctors, they don’t trust their pharmaceutical quality, and [things] like that.”
The same is true about Ukraine – while medical costs are similar in both countries, Ukrainians prefer Belarusians doctors who take responsibility for their work.
“Foreigners Do Not Know Much About Belarus”
Many Belarusian hospitals, Androsau says, are ready to work with non-Russian speaking clients. Local doctors are fluent in English.
“We do a lot of marketing for Baltic countries, especially for dental implants, which [are] twice as expensive [there] as in Belarus,” Androsau said. “At the same time, in Latvia for example, [dental implants are] two or three times cheaper than they are in Scandinavia or in the UK.”
The savings can be significant on many elective procedures, depending on a customer’s home country.
For example, a common breast-enlargement procedure can cost about $3,100 in Belarus, but about $5,000 in Lithuania and around $7,000 in Britain.
The cost in Belarus of a “tummy tuck,” which removes fat and excess skin from the abdomen, is about $2,100, while in Lithuania it costs $3,800 and in Britain about $8,880.
The differences are even more stark between dental implants. A new tooth in Belarus costs about $550, while in the United States, for example, that same incisor or bicuspid runs about $2,500 — and dental tourists often come to Belarus to get four or five new teeth.
“Foreigners simply do not know much about us. But those who come, remain satisfied. They say they were expecting bears and vodka, but found out everything is different here”, Androsau said.
Another obstacle for Germans and American is the visa barrier. It is one more thing that medical-tourism operator have to deal with.
Now, when visas have been lifted for 80 countries, Androsau believes that Belarusians specialists should take advantage of that.
Cash Inflow And Time For A Change
The health-care system in Belarus is considered “above average” when compared to others worldwide, listed in international surveys as being among the top 70 or 75.
Belarusian Deputy Health Minister Vyachaslau Shyla offered an even better review of his country’s medical services, saying in a letter to RFE/RL that “100 percent” of Belarusians have access to health care, making it “No. 1 in the world” along with Canada and Brunei.
But when asked, many Belarusians complain about long lines at health clinics, lots of red tape, a dearth of qualified doctors and nurses, and bad attitudes among medical professionals toward patients.
Entrepreneurs like Androsau are betting that coming to a health clinic in cash-strapped Belarus with cash in hand instead of a state health-insurance card can make lines disappear and doctors politer.
With the average doctor’s salary in Belarus around $500 per month, doctors appear eager to supplement their incomes through medical tourism.
The Belarusian Volha Kapachenya has lived in the UK for two years. According to her, in many sectors the Belarusian medicine is better than the British.
“A British doctor whom I went to, told me he traveled abroad to do an MRI”, the girl said. “He had problems with his back and went to Poland. Because it is cheaper than in the UK.”
Now Volha combines every visit to Belarus with a visit to a doctor. Belarusian medicine, she believes, has many advantages.
“It’s just a different system”, she said. “The British like the fact that they can receive free treatment. And I like the Belarusian system because one can turn to a private clinic and not spend a fortune on it.”
With an estimated 14 million patients worldwide crossing a border in 2016 for medical procedures, the global medical-tourism industry was worth an estimated $45 billion-$70 billion.
While Belarus is not among the leaders worldwide, it could eventually make an impact among non-Russian-speaking countries.