Up until the past few years, during which time it has gained a new airport and several new major highways, travelling to Lublin was neither easy nor particularly fun. Still, this did not stop scores of international students making the journey, via cramped train carriages or narrow roads, attracted by the relatively low cost of getting a university degree, particularly a medical one, in the Polish city.
“The Medical University of Lublin has, for a number of years, been targeting international students, offering them studies and enabling them to practice in countries such as the US and Canada for a much lower cost than what they would have to pay back home,” says Wiktoria Herun, a project manager at the Lublin City Hall's department of strategy and investor services.
When its English-language medicine degree programme started in 1995, the Medical University of Lublin had just five students, now this figure has grown to 890.
“When students come here, they bring money, which they spend settling in the town for the duration of their studies,” says Miroslaw Jakubczak, chairman of Luxmed, a local chain of medical offices that is affiliated with a national medical services provider operating under the same name. “It is a good thing for a local economy."
It is also good for Mr Jakubczak's business, which has been enjoying year-on-year growth in the number of foreign customers using its medical services. “So far, this has been an organic growth, without us targeting foreign customers,” says Mr Jakubczak, who adds that the increasing number of foreign patients prompted his company to introduce online registration in English recently.
“But the potential is much greater, especially when you meet with foreign partners and they think that the prices for your procedures are missing a digit or two,” says Mr Jakubczak. Such reactions are understandable: some procedures are 80% cheaper in Poland than in Scandinavia. It is unsurprising therefore that the country's medical tourism sector has exploded in recent years. In 2011, an estimated 300,000 medical tourists visited Poland, more than double the number recorded in 2010, according to Medi Tour, a Polish portal specialising in the industry.
Efforts to attract more medical tourists are still in their early stages, both for Luxmed and for Lublin itself. But progress is being made. At the beginning of 2014, Lublin formally launched its medical cluster. “We decided to step in, as a city, to build strong links between local academic institutions and the private sector to boost medical R&D, and medical tourism,” says Marzena Strok-Sadlo, senior project manager at the Lublin City Hall's department of strategy and investor services. She adds that, so far, 50 entities have signed up as members of the cluster.
The move is seen as a positive one by local businesses, including Luxmed. “Such support from local authorities is important,” says Mr Jakubczak, “In the past, local authorities would promote our region by showing images of fields covered with grains. If you are Scandinavian and live by beautiful fjords, would you be impressed? [However,] looking at our medical innovations and prices for medical procedures, you certainly might be."