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The Doctor Will See You Now

by Laura Powell

Exploring the continuum of wellness-medical tourism around the globe: Top European med spas combine diagnostics and advanced technologies with centuries-old natural healing elements.

Wellness tourism, health tourism, medical tourism. What in the heck are we talking about here? While there used to be a distinct demarcation between wellness tourism and medical tourism, today the definitions are all over the map. Wellness resorts, which previously focused solely on pampering and relaxation, are adding diagnostics and advanced technologies designed to do everything from reducing stress to improving sleep. In the meantime, more medically focused destinations, particularly in Europe, are seeking new audiences by adding lifestyle and wellness offerings. How does the average wellness seeker figure out what’s what?

Wellness by Any Other Name

Let’s start off by looking at the continuum of wellness/health/medical tourism. Both wellness tourism and medical tourism fall under the general category of health tourism. Although interrelated, wellness tourism and medical tourism are fundamentally different as they target travelers with different needs.

Defined in the simplest way, wellness tourism is preventive in nature, while medical tourism is reactive. According to a UNWTO/European Travel Commission report, “The primary motivation for the wellness tourist is to engage in preventive, proactive, lifestyle-enhancing activities such as fitness, healthy eating, relaxation, pampering and healing treatments.” On the other hand, medical tourism “involves the use of medical healing resources and services (both invasive and non-invasive) for existing health issues.”

So, we are talking about a health tourism  continuum running the gamut from hotels to hospitals. That’s quite a range.

The scope starts with traditional resorts that happen to have spas. These types of resorts (think Four Seasons or The Ritz- Carlton) appeal to a wide range of travelers.

Next up are destination spa resorts like The Lodge at Woodloch in Pennsylvania or Sundara Inn & Spa in Wisconsin. Wellness is embedded in the DNA of these places. The spa is a centerpiece, while the resorts also offer healthy food and a range of fitness classes, workshops and other programming designed specifically for guests looking for a wellness escape.

Integrative wellness resorts fall at the midpoint of the wellness-medical tourism continuum. Noted names like Lanserhof, SHA and Chiva-Som combine wellness and medical, although treatments are still largely preventive in nature. As treatments are usually not invasive, some call integrative resorts “medical tourism light.” 

At the far end of things, we’ll find hard-core medical tourism, where people go to other countries seeking surgery or cheaper treatment for serious medical conditions. In reality, this type of medical tourism falls beyond the scope of wellness and is something that should be booked with the advice of a doctor, not a travel advisor.

A Deeper Look: A Continental View of Medical Spas

Examples of integrative approaches to health and wellness can be found in many parts of the world. But there is a long- cherished European tradition that is one of the wellness world’s biggest secrets beyond the continent. (What’s more, unlike the integrative resort brands just mentioned, these places are affordable for the average wellness pilgrim.)

We are talking about the European medical spa. Both reactive and proactive, European spas focus on chronic issues like stress, arthritis, eczema and asthma by combining high-tech medical science with old-school remedies. They are also increasingly adding wellness options into the mix.

For those who have never been, a first stop into a European medical spa may seem somewhat daunting. Depending on where you go, you may encounter naked people wandering around the bathing areas, or older folks hobbling around in their bathrobes (likely on their way to physical therapy appointments). A babel of languages or a 1980s Muzak mixtape may be the soundtrack of a visit. The scene can seem somewhat peculiar to the average North American, likely equating a spa visit with scenes of Instagram-ready bodies encased in plush robes while New Age music plays in the background.

But, as they say, never judge a book by its cover. No, the European medical spa experience is not the same as what you will encounter at places like Miraval or The Breakers, but that’s the point. While the surroundings may not always be as plush or luxe (although sometimes they are), after acclimatizing, you’ll discover that this type of experience can be an incredibly effective elixir for all that ails you.

What in the World Is It?

Treatments at European medical spas fall under the banner of spa medicine, or balneology. According to Csilla Mezösi, secretary general for the European Spas Association (ESPA), balneology incorporates natural elements like thermal and mineral waters, natural gas, the climate and mud in a medical treatment regimen. Dr. Boris Bánovský, medical director of the Ensana Piešťany Health Spa Hotels in Slovakia, calls this system “traditional Western medicine,” where doctors largely prescribe natural treatments instead of pills and invasive procedures.

The concept dates back centuries in Europe, as ailing patients, including royalty, would travel to healing spas with famous names like Bath (England), Spa (Belgium), and Baden-Baden (Germany).

Today, European medical spas can be found throughout the continent, from up in the Baltics down to the boot of Italy. Many of the most affordable options can be found in Eastern and Central Europe, in places like Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Romania.

Where you stay may depend on your medical ailment, as certain spas specialize in particular conditions, depending largely upon the mineral content of the water and the mud.

A Personal Perspective

To test the waters, so to speak, I checked into the three-star Grand Hotel Primus in Ptuj, Slovenia for six days (a minimal stay of one week is recommended). The hotel had its own thermal pools and medical facilities, along with a fitness center. Rooms were simple, but comfortable, and the grounds were well-kept and peaceful. I rather enjoyed the retro 1980s vibe of the place and felt I received great value for the price.

Regardless of where you stay, the process is fairly standard. Upon checking in, I met with an English-speaking doctor who had earlier pored over my medical records. There were a few particular issues I wanted to attend to, including chronic lower back pain and other nagging odds and ends. Based on my records and the in-depth consultation, the doctor designed a daily program for me, consisting of five treatments a day. Each morning, I joined about eight others in a heated pool for a 20-minute round of exercises designed to help the lower back. After a short break to dry off, it was off to land-based physical therapy. My other daily therapies were 20-minute electro-stimulation and medical massage sessions, along with a 45-minute lymphatic drainage treatment. In all cases, the practitioners were top-notch and provided invaluable advice.

Since all of the treatments were done by 1 p.m., I had plenty of time to enjoy Ptuj (the oldest town in Slovenia), relax in the hotel’s thermal baths (a co-ed area where most bare all), or swim in the indoor pool. After the course of treatment, I met with the doctor again, who sent me home with suggestions for keeping up the regimen. Did I feel better? Heck, yeah.

My stay cost about $1,000 for six days. That’s a fairly typical price at many Central European and Baltic medical spas, depending on the time of year. That rate, by the way, includes a room at a three-or four-star hotel, half-board, and all medically prescribed treatments. Wellness treatments, like facials or relaxation rubdowns, can often be booked for an additional fee.

While attending to one’s health is the main mission at these spas, there’s still plenty of free time to enjoy the typical facets of a European vacation, such as culture, gastronomy, history and nature. 

Some European Med Spa Recommendations

Hotel Thermana Park Lasko, Lasko, Slovenia

Set in the midst of a rambling river and verdant hills, Hotel Thermana Park Lasko is a property for all seasons, and for all wellness seekers. There are two separate wings, one catering to the wellness tourist and the other to the medical tourist. However, guests in one wing can access the facilities in the other. The wellness wing features an Ayurveda medical center, which offers individual treatments and multi-day packages. In between the wellness hotel and the medical center sits an ultra-modern domed water world, complete with thermal pools, saunas, a Kneipping area, waterfalls and whirlpools. There’s also an outdoor water area, with pools for both adults and kids.

The Healing Hotels of Abano Terme, Italy

Abano Terme is part of the oldest and largest spa region in Italy. Its geothermal waters, along with its mud, filled with healthy minerals and micro-organisms, have been used for healing purposes for millennia. According to Cinzia De Marzo, senior consultant for the Mirabilia Network, mineral waters from the nearby Euganean Hills funnel into the thermal spas and healing facilities at local hotels. For example, the health facility at the historic five-star Grand Hotel Trieste & Victoria specializes in treating orthopedic, respiratory and metabolic issues with the help of that water and mineral-rich mud. The hotel’s White Spa also offers preventive services. Due to the location of Abano Terme, just 45 minutes from Venice and only six miles from Padua, visitors usually combine health treatments with cultural experiences, the best of Italian gastronomy and nature outings.

Fra Mare Thalasso Spa, Haapsalu, Estonia

This cozy property is set in a beautiful Estonian pine forest. Treatments at the Fra Mare Thalasso Spa are divided into medical spa and thalassotherapy (sea-based) treatments. All are designed to relieve the symptoms of musculoskeletal and nervous system diseases and to reduce general tiredness and stress. The resort recently expanded its wellness facilities with the addition of the Healing Yoga House. The hotel’s aim is to become one of the first providers of evidence-based healing yoga, combining the yoga with a program of healthy nutrition and time spent in nature.

Savoy Westend Hotel, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

Savoy Westend Hotel is a historic property dating from 1897. It’s made up of five separate villas, each with its own unique charm. A contemporary medical spa facility focuses on providing comprehensive professional health care, including traditional medicine and diagnostics, along with therapies using local natural healing sources such as mineral springs or peat. Visitors to the town of Karlovy Vary can also explore the town’s thermal springs, the surrounding forest, and its companions (Františkovy Lázně and Mariánské Lázně,) in the West Bohemian Spa Triangle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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