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Medical tourism targets wealthy Russians

Switzerland is encouraging wealthy Russians who ski at resorts from St Moritz to Zermatt to return this season for medical check-ups or surgery.

Potential patients were given brochures last winter recounting how Mr Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, and Mr Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of the Gulag Archipelago, found asylum in the Alpine nation.

The nine-page brochure highlighted Switzerland's doctors as the "best in the world", as well as the country's reputation for quality and its historical links to Russia.

Wealthy Russians who ski at resorts from St Moritz (picture) to Zermatt are the target clientele of Swiss hospitals. BLOOMBERG

"Switzerland is still too little known as a provider of medical services, even though the medicine is top class," said Mr Gregor Frei, head of Swiss Health. "There's enormous potential."

Medical tourism revenue may climb almost fivefold to 5 billion Swiss francs ($6.6 billion) by 2020, said Jan Sobhani, director of Zurich-based Swixmed, which arranges treatment for foreign patients. That is equal to almost quadruple last year's exports of chocolate and cheese.

"For serious conditions, we and most of our friends travel abroad," said Ms Elena Petrova, whose two-year-old son Andrej has flown five times from Moscow for kidney surgery and check-ups at Zurich's University Children's Hospital. "I absolutely recommend it."

The Zurich hospital chosen by Ms Petrova was the world's first to use ultrasound to kill brain tumour cells without cutting the skull open. The family was charged 60,000 francs for the keyhole kidney surgery that resulted in Andrej, 11 months old at the time, being able to stand in his bed two days later.

Unlike the cut-price medical treatment offered in places such as India and Thailand, Switzerland focuses on state-of-the-art procedures that are not always available elsewhere, said Mr Peter Kappert, president of Swiss Leading Hospitals, a Baar-based association of private clinics.

While about 60 per cent of medical tourism revenue is linked directly to the health-care system, additional income is generated through tourism.

Switzerland plans to broaden its campaign next year by persuading Arabian Gulf visitors to emulate United Arab Emirates President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan, who received undisclosed treatment in August.

"These are mostly very privileged people," Sobhani said. "Our clients start in what I would call the upper middle class and go right up to people who are so rich you can't even imagine."

Patients also often travel with at least one relative and stay in luxury hotels such as Zurich's five-star Baur au Lac, according to Sobhani.

With Switzerland attracting billionaire patients, including Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, hospitals are developing amenities such as the 250 sq m Presidential Suite at Genolier's flagship clinic, which overlooks Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc. Bloomberg

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