What Is Medical Tourism?

Medical tourism is the practice of travelling to different countries to get quality and affordable healthcare services. It is also referred to as global healthcare, health tourism, and medical travel. The term ‘medical tourism’ was created by the media and travel agencies to popularize this form of practice. Today, medical tourism has grown to become an official industry in more than 50 countries.

Why is Medical Tourism Popular?

So, what exactly are the benefits of medical tourism and why do people travel abroad for simple and complex medical procedures? The main factor that encourages medical travel is undoubtedly the high cost of medical care in developed countries like the United States. Most medical travel destinations offer surgeries at almost one-third the costs of developed countries. This translates into bigger savings for a person who has to undergo a complex medical procedure like a liver transplant or even for a cosmetic surgery procedure.

Another reason is the high costs of medical insurance in western countries which have led to many people not opting for any medical plans. The high unemployment rates in the U.S and other European countries are another major contributing factor. Today, due to the deteriorating unemployment levels millions of people can no longer afford health insurance. So, a person not covered by health insurance has very less options other than seeking cheaper treatment elsewhere. As a result, medical travel has gained rapid acceptance and popularity in a short period of time.

Medical tourism

Medical Tourism Costs Comparison

Here are some surprising cost comparisons which justify the existence of the medical tourism industry. A liver transplant in the U.S would cost close to a whopping $300,000, while a person who opts to travel to Taiwan would end up paying just around $90,000. This translates into savings of around 70 percent. Similarly, a heart valve replacement costs about $10,000 in India, whereas it costs around $200,000 in the United States. Women who plan to undergo complex cosmetic surgery have to spend a fortune in the U.S. In this case, a full facelift in South Africa would cost just around $1250 compared to about $20,000 in the United States. These glaring price cost savings are the most important reason for the huge growth in the medical tourism industry

Pros and Cons of Medical Tourism

Medical travel abroad isn’t just popular because of the cost savings. There are many other benefits too. For example, the waiting times for medical procedures in the U.K are long and cumbersome. On the other hand, in medical tourism, a patient’s entire procedure is planned and scheduled well in advance. Once the patient arrives in the host country, there is little to no waiting time. Here is another example to illustrate this point. In Canada, during the year 2005, more than 750,000 Canadians had to wait for an average of 9.5 weeks to get their medical procedures done. Canada also sets long waiting benchmarks ranging from 16 to 26 weeks for non-emergency medical procedures like cataract and hip replacement surgery.

While the medical travel industry has its benefits it also has its share of drawbacks and concerns. For example, a medical tourist can easily be susceptible to many diseases in the host country, where high standards of hygiene may not be available. A person from the United States may have low to no natural immunity levels to these diseases. These diseases could hamper or complicate existing health conditions. Some of the diseases that could weaken or complicate the recovery of the person are amoebic dysentery, influenza, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Health complications could also arise during travel due to cramped seats in airlines and long distance flights.

Even accredited hospitals in countries like India lack adequate complaint registering policies. This leads to a lot of patients being totally dissatisfied with the services offered. There are also many legal and ethical issues involved during organ transplantation in India and China. This primarily is due to the large-scale illegal purchase of tissues and organs in these countries. Despite these shortcomings, medical travel seems to be the way forward unless countries like the United States can manage to cut their medical costs drastically or start providing medical tourism insurance.

Popular Medical Tourism Destinations

Many people are on the lookout for both simple and complex procedures like cardiac surgery, hip and knee replacement, dental surgery and cosmetic surgery. For these procedures the most popular medical travel destinations are India, Argentina, Cuba, Hungary, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, The Philippines, Ukraine, Lithuania, and South Korea. High quality cosmetic surgery at affordable prices is available in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Turkey, and Colombia. Over the last few years, South American countries like Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Bolivia have become a hot destination for world-class plastic surgeries. These countries boast of talented and experienced cosmetic surgeons of repute. Most medical tourists come from countries like the United States, Canada, the U.K, and Japan.

Implications for the Healthcare Industry

Medical travel has created implications in countries from where they originate. In 2007, more than 750,000 Americans sought healthcare services outside the country and more than 1.5 million are expected to seek offshore healthcare in 2008. This has resulted in the United States health care industry losing billions of dollars and is set to lose even more in the future. According to a Deloitte Consulting report of 2008, medical tourism in the United States could most likely increase by almost 10 times in the next decade. This trend is alarming and can hardly be ignored by the healthcare industry. While this may spell trouble for the healthcare insurance industry, it could also be a motivating factor for the healthcare industry to lower its premiums to stay competitive. This major shift towards medical tourism has opened the doors for medical tourism insurance. Currently, very few medical insurers cover medical tourism. However, there is a growing demand for medical tourism insurance and we might soon see major healthcare insurance providers offering people the option to travel abroad. This would definitely be an important step in making healthcare more affordable.

Monitoring Industry Best Practices

To ensure higher standards of healthcare quality a growing number of international healthcare accreditation organizations are now certifying international hospitals. This accreditation is awarded based on the level of healthcare services and quality of medical procedures provided. Since 1999, the Joint Commission International (JCI), a non-profit organization based in the United States has been authorized to certify and accredit hospitals and medical facilities outside the country. Medical tourism providers in many countries are now seeking accreditation to keep on track with healthcare best practice norms and gain patient confidence and trust.

The medical tourism industry is growing and will continue to rapidly surge unless healthcare providers and insurance companies make sincere efforts to lower the costs of health insurance. Medical travel is not a problem; it is an answer to cheaper medical solutions. And unless the healthcare industry in western countries finds answers to reducing costs, medical tourism will definitely be the most convincing answer.