Medical tourism: a growing trend in healthcare

The first in a series of two articles exploring the increasing global trend of medical tourism and how it is affecting many different healthcare systems and economies worldwide.
This first article serves as an introduction to what is medical torusim and some of the most frequently asked questions on the topic. 

What is “Medical tourism”?

Medical tourism has been most commonly defined as: “The process of traveling across international borders for the purpose of receiving medical care”. This definition does not include expatriates, tourists in need of emergency medical care, those accompanying medical travelers, or the typical multiple patient morbidities that tend to occur during a medical visit abroad (this is especially the case with elderly patients).

Under the above definition, it is believed that the global market size for this industry can be anywhere between € 29-40 bn, with approximately 11 m cross-border patients worldwide spending an average of about € 3,500 per visit (i.e. medical, travel and boarding costs). Furthermore, it is estimated that about 1,200,000 Americans will travel outside the US for medical care this year alone.

Why are people engaging in medical tourism?

Despite the fact that medical tourism has been popularly depicted as a solely “economic issue”, both at the system and individual levels, the truth is that there are various factors behind this choice and the drivers tend to be diverse and more complex than solely “a money issue” (i.e. unmet needs, the nature of services sought and the manner by which treatment is accessed etc.).

Drivers for the increasing growth and popularity of medical tourism include the fact that:

  • In most countries like the U.S. and the majority of Europe, the population is aging and becoming more affluent at rates that surpass the availability of quality healthcare resources.
  • The healthcare systems in these countries have experienced a significant rise in out-of-pocket medical costs for both “critical” and “elective procedures”. The related costs continue to rise every year.
  • Nations offering universal care are faced with ever-increasing resource burdens (i.e. staff and budget shortages that affect quality of care).

Taking these drivers into account, it is estimated that the medical tourism market will continue to grow by up to 25 percent yearly.

Medical tourism is often a popular choice for patients who:

  • Are on wait-lists for care in their home country,
  • Have no health insurance or are under-insured,
  • Have been living abroad and prefer to go back to their home land for care,
  • Are seeking more holistic or traditional options of care in addition to modern ones (e.g. orthopedic surgery with a yoga rehab program incorporating traditional Asian medicine),
  • Are looking to access experimental treatments or treatment that might be illegal in their home land.

What types or care do medical tourists actually seek?

When speaking of medical tourism there are quite a number of popular specialized areas for which patients tend to seek care, including:

  • Diagnostics (e.g. imaging, tests, health screenings and second opinions)
  • Cosmetic surgeries & weight loss (e.g. LAP-BAND, gastric bypass)
  • Dental Services (e.g. general, restorative, cosmetic)
  • Cardiovascular (e.g. angioplasty, CABG, transplants)
  • Orthopedics (e.g. joint and spine; sports medicine)
  • Oncology (e.g. often high-acuity or palliative care)
  • Reproductive (e.g. fertility treatments)

What are some of the more popular destinations for medical tourism?

For quite some time, Asia has been the global center of medical tourism. In fact, the medical tourism industry in Asia is the biggest and the most profitable in the world, having surpassed the entire medical tourism industry in the world combined. Other popular destinations include: Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Turkey.

There are a variety of factors that make these countries a good option for those seeking quality medical care, including:

  • Both private and public sector investment in local healthcare infrastructure.
  • The healthcare system and local facilities show outward commitment to international accreditation, quality assurance, and transparency of outcomes.
  • Provision of cost savings on medical procedures
  • Political transparency and social stability
  • Established tourism infrastructure
  • Reputation for clinical excellence
  • Availability of state-of-the-art medical technology
  • Internationally-trained and experienced medical staff

Why are local Governments encouraging medical tourism as an “industry” in their countries?

Aware of the many benefits of establishing medical tourism as “an industry” (strengthening local healthcare systems, increased profit margins, increased foreign investment etc.) the local government in these countries are working hard to encourage medical tourism. Local hospitals and nursing homes have already begun seeking international accreditation and offering packages and deals to foreign tourists.

Typical medical tourist packages put together by hospitals or government agencies tend to include airfare, accommodation, travel fees and the actual treatment costs. In recent years, many websites and organizations have sprung up to advise medical tourists on the best places to seek care and some actually rate hospitals and extend information on how much can be saves on different procedures.

As local governments continue to invest in medicine to promote medical tourism, the prices of treatment for foreign travelers will decrease giving more fuel to the already growing medical tourism industry.

About Ritza Suazo

Researches and creates Clinical Pathways and Country Deep Dive Reports at TforG. With almost a decade of experience in Clinical Market research she also manages and recruits the TforG advisory board. She graduated with a double major in psychology and international business management from Stony Brook University in New York and continues to apply her experience in research specializing in the US, UK, Spain and South American Markets.