Not so long ago the idea of medical tourism was restricted to the wealthiest citizens of third world countries traveling to the first world countries that had the best medical care. The elite would leave developing countries to seek out the specialists, quality equipment, and cutting edge procedures that were only available in Europe and the US. Today the flow has reversed. Although some still seek out western expertise, the majority of medical tourists are traveling to developing countries to seek treatment.
The rationale for seeking medical treatment abroad varies from patient to patient, but the overall effect is considerable. It is estimated that 7-11 million patients become medical tourists each year, including 1.2 million Americans. That accounts for $38-55 billion (USD) in medical spending and an average cost of $3,500 – $5,000 (USD) per visit. The estimates are so wide because it is extremely difficult to count medical tourists across so many different countries and to separate out those foreign patients who receive emergency treatment, expatriates who live overseas and those who seek medical treatment while working in a foreign country.
The top reasons that people seek medical treatment in a foreign country are rising health care costs at home, lack of availability of certain procedures, and access to specialists. Combine those with the chance to recuperate in a faraway land and it is easy to understand why more and more patients are traveling each year.
Health Care Costs
In the US one of the primary reasons to seek care elsewhere is the high cost of health care. Imagine saving 50-60% or more on routine procedures and dentistry. Now imagine that the money saved can be used to purchase high-end accommodations in countries with much lower cost of living. It is simple mathematics that for the cost of surgery and recovery in the US a patient can travel to Asia or South America and get not only surgery, but recovery in a top-rated spa and the chance to explore a foreign city — and still come home with money in their pocket.
It sounds too good to be true, but it is not. Over the last few decades the entire world has seen an increase in wealth and education. This means that third world medicine is no longer a backwater clinic with decades-old equipment. Developing countries have highly trained physicians with access to technology and research that make them competitive with the average doctor in the west. They are able to provide orthopedic, cardiovascular, and cosmetic surgery, perform weight loss and dental procedures, and offer fertility and cancer treatments, for a fraction of the cost of the same treatment in more developed nations.
Americans can expect to save considerable amounts when traveling abroad for surgery or treatment. Depending on the specific surgery, doctor, and hospital or clinic, US citizens can save 65-90% on medical treatments in India and 50-75% in Thailand, two of the most popular destinations. Closer to home, medical procedures in Mexico or Costa Rico cost 40-65% less than in the US.
A second reason to travel abroad is for access to treatment. For some this occurs because their health insurance does not cover certain procedures or makes the cost prohibitive. As more and more health plans require patients to pay out of pocket for high cost treatment, more and more patients are turning to medical tourism.
Some experimental surgeries and treatments are illegal in a given country. This is especially true of some cutting edge cancer trials and fertility treatments. Patients and couples are finding that by crossing borders they can gain access to treatments that aren’t available at home.
Availability may also be a function of time. In many countries the health care system can be overwhelmed. This leads to patients having to wait months or years for surgery. Medical tourism can provide immediate access to treatment instead of prolonged waiting periods.
Access to Specialists
A certain number of patients aren’t concerned with cost or availability of treatment. They simply want access to the best specialists in the world, wherever those doctors may practice. This is the traditional type of medical tourism, with wealthy patients jetting to whatever country has the top doctor and the top treatment record.
It is misleading to think that only third-world countries benefit from medical tourism. Two of the most popular countries in recent years have been the US and the United Kingdom, because of their ability to provide top notch care from world renowned physicians. On a smaller scale, any country may find themselves home to an in-demand specialist and patients travel to Switzerland, Israel, Hong Kong, and even Thailand to get the best doctor for a given procedure.
Setting aside the competing data on how many people engage in medical tourism and how much they spend, reports do agree that demand is growing. Market experts expect a 15-25% annual rate of growth for the foreseeable future. They also project that Asia will see the highest growth rates, especially in Southeast and South Asia, but also in the North.