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Medical Tourism: what is it all about?

Medical tourism is a term used to describe the practice of travelling across (international) borders in order to obtain health care. Travellers look for a very wide range of services, including voluntary, often cosmetic procedures (such as breast implants or face-lifts) as well as much more complex, specialised surgeries which often concern crucial body parts and/or organs (for example heart surgery). In some cases travellers rely heavily upon these surgeries in order to increase their life expectancy.

Over 50 countries have identified medical tourism as a national industry. The quality of healthcare services in each varies enormously, with some destinations being known as relatively cheap, but at the same time somewhat risky for medical tourists.

Why is Medical Tourism popular?

Almost all medical procedures, products and services can be found around the world. What drives people towards medical tourism is often simply money: being able to save over 50% in costs is very appealing to those interested or need surgery. Besides the (much) friendlier prices abroad, medical tourism has become increasingly popular for the following reasons:

  • the high cost of health care (especially in the United States)
  • long wait times, also known as waiting lists, for certain procedures
  • the ease and affordability of international travel
  • undergoing a procedure or therapy not available in someone’s home country
  • improvements in both technology and the standards of health care in many countries
Medical Insurance form

Across most destinations, American standards are used during procedures. In some cases, the quality-standards are set even higher than US-counterparts. Hospitals are increasingly equipped with the latest technology as well as highly qualified and experienced surgeons.

What countries are popular destinations for medical tourism?

The most popular countries for Medical Tourism are:

  • Brazil, known as a destination mainly visited for cosmetic surgery. There are, in fact, many plastic-surgery-only hospitals.
  • Canada is popular among Americans. In comparison to US health costs, medical tourism patients can save anywhere between 30% to 60% on health costs in Canada.
  • Costa Rica has seen a steady growth in popularity in the medical tourism industry over the years, and currently there are at least six major private hospitals and 22 public hospitals that deliver a variety of medical tourism products and services. In 2016, Costa Rica welcomed some 70,000 medical tourists.
  • It is said that the “fine reputation of Cuban doctors, the low prices and nearby beaches on which to recuperate,” make Cuba a popular destination. Numbers are hard to come by, but according to estimates, Cuba attracts nearly 20,000 medical tourists annually.
  • Mexico has been popular among Americans due to its proximity to the US and its affordable prices. Specialties include dentistry and plastic surgery. Mexican dentists often charge one-fifth to one-fourth of US prices, while other procedures typically cost a third of what they would in the US.
  • Singapore’s health care system has previously been ranked by The World Health Organization as the highest in Asia. Estimates lie at half a million medical tourists annually. However, despite its reputation for cutting-edge technology and top medical expertise, Singapore could be pricing itself out of the market.
  • Thailand is a booming destination. Back in 2006, medical tourism already projected to earn the country over USD $1 billion. More recently, in 2017, the country attracted almost 2.5 million foreign patients.

Medical Tourism and rehabilitation

Many of the aforementioned countries have adequate tourism infrastructure in place which makes a medical trip successful. Travel opportunities in countries like Mexico, Brazil and Thailand each offer very diverse experiences; which can be enjoyed in combination with medical procedures as well as any necessary rehabilitation.

Many medical tourists combine their procedure with free time spent shopping, sightseeing, having a spa treatment or at the beach.

Medical Tourism patient on the beach

The average amount a traveller or patient spends depends heavily on the type of treatment. For simple cosmetic procedures, average expenses are around USD $3000-$5000, whereas more complicated surgeries range from USD $10.000 upwards.

What issues does the Medical Tourism industry face?

There are some issues which the medical tourism market faces. Specifically, in some countries the ease at which medical procedures can be undergone raises questions about the legality as well as quality of said procedures.

Furthermore, while there are always risks involved with medical procedures, the idea of something going wrong abroad is still a reason for some to steer away from medical tourism altogether.

Future Projections

The growth rate of medical tourism is currently projected to go up to 25% annually for the next 10 years.

Close up of doctor man hands using smartphone and wearing stethoscope

This goes hand in hand with the emergence of integrated platforms that include online consultations both pre- and post-trip, billing, and medical records management. With more and more patients leaving reviews for doctors and hospitals, it will help other travellers choose, book and pay for their treatment in ever higher numbers. Technology also presents opportunities in the area of translation between the patient’s and doctor’s language.