Tummy Tuck? New Pearly Whites? Medical Tourism A Boon In Belarus
Enhanced bustlines and newly minted, sparkling smiles probably aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think of Belarus.
But the former Soviet republic, known more for naked authoritarianism than breast augmentation, has become a minor health-care utopia for Russians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, and affluent patients from some other states of the former U.S.S.R.
More than 50,000 “medical tourists” came to Belarus in 2016, according to Uladzislau Androsau, the energetic 28-year-old director of medical-tourism operator MedTravelBelarus.
Androsau’s 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 says. “For example, tooth implants, breast implants,… this is like 70 percent of our incoming patients.”
Androsau says that “age surgeries” to roll back the years — facelifts and liposuction among them — are also popular among so-called medical tourists.
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.
‘My Govorim Na Russkom!’
Many of the medical-tourism providers in Belarus have marketing campaigns aimed at prospective patients in the six countries where most of the customers come from: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania).
Androsau says his agency, which he founded in 2010 after studying tourism in Lithuania and at Belarusian State University, also targets Russian-speakers living in Western Europe.
“We do a lot of marketing for Baltic countries, especially for dental implants, which [are] twice as expensive [there] as in Belarus,” Androsau says. “At the same time, in Latvia for example, [dental implants are] two or three times cheaper than they are in Scandinavia or in the U.K.”
He suggests potential clients outside the former Soviet Union are less enthusiastic about traveling to such unfamiliar parts for medical procedures. “Unfortunately, Belarus is not so popular among [Scandinavians]. They don’t know so much about Belarus, and although we are ready [for them],… they are not ready to come,” Androsau says.
The savings can be significant on many elective procedures, depending on a customer’s home country.
For example, a common breast-enlargement procedure in Belarus 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.
The low cost of food and lodging in Belarus, plus its central location in Europe and close proximity to the Baltic capitals, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, add to the country’s attractiveness as a health-care destination.
Androsau says that 60-70 percent of his clients are from Russia.
He says that when he first launched his company, Russians came seeking better prices. But since the Russian economy hit the skids in 2014, taking the ruble with it — a situation exacerbated by international sanctions over Moscow’s military interference in Ukraine — the gap has narrowed between the cost of medical procedures in Belarus and Russia.
Yet the Russian patients continue to come, Androsau says.
“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 says.
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 says of Kazakh customers, “so they don’t trust their doctors, they don’t trust their pharmaceutical quality, and [things] like that.”
He says there has also been a surge in recent years of Russian-speaking Israelis coming to Belarus for treatment.
Hard Currency Cuts Wait Times
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.
A physician at a Minsk hospital who requests anonymity tells RFE/RL’s Belarus Service that health care for foreigners is good because they pay for the services. And if Belarusians want the same service, she says, they also have to pay for it.
“Those who bring money are served first. They have a green light, all the operations are performed properly and to the same quality [as foreigners],” she says. “You want to expedite the process, pay more.”
With the average doctor’s salary in Belarus around $500 per month — in health-care more broadly, it’s an even more modest $240 or so — doctors appear eager to supplement their incomes through medical tourism.
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 Russian-speaking countries.
As medical-tourism companies and health-care professionals in one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe, Belarusians in the sector are hoping they can continue to draw patients from other countries beyond the former Soviet Union.
Even the government in Minsk has recognized how important health tourism can be to the economy. Earlier this month, authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a decree lifting visa requirements for the citizens of some 80 countries.
“We were waiting for this [for] years!” Androsau says. “It’s a really big step,” he adds, explaining that his company has already posted a new article listing the top seven medical procedures one can have completed in Minsk within five days — the length of time that foreigners from those 80 countries are allowed to stay in Belarus without a visa.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.