Medical Tourism
Patients on vacation

Health tourism is becoming increasingly popular as the high cost of healthcare in the West forces people to look abroad for cheaper alternatives. Callan Emery reports on the phenomenon.


More and more people are travelling overseas to seek medical treatments. They travel because either the cost of medical treatment is too expensive where they reside or there are long waiting lists for certain procedures. And in the case of aesthetic, cosmetic treatments often they wish to escape the prying eyes of acquaintances at home while they recover.

Travelling from all around the world to a growing number of recognised destinations medical tourists seek essential healthcare services such as cancer treatment and brain and transplant surgery as well as complementary or elective services such as aesthetic treatments or cosmetic surgery. The term medical tourism was coined a few years back by the media and travel agencies in an effort to describe the growing trend of people seeking healthcare outside of their country of residence. In many cases these trips are sold as package deals that include flights, transfers, hotels, treatment and often a postoperative vacation.

Medical tourism has been around for thousands of years – in ancient Greece, pilgrims and patients came from all over the Mediterranean to the sanctuary of the healing god, Asklepios, at Epidaurus; in Roman Britain, patients took to the healing waters at Bath; and since the 18th century wealthy Europeans have travelled to spas in Germany for wellbeing. However, the industry is now established globally. A brief search on the Internet throws up a wide variety of companies offering specialist services related to healthcare tourism. They all offer various medical treatment package trips to a wide range of destinations and some even include chaperone and translation services.

This points to the growing popularity of this industry. Over the past few years the number of people seeking healthcare in a foreign country has grown exponentially and the phrase “medical tourism” is now well entrenched in common jargon.

There are two key factors that drive medical tourism. One is a lack of appropriate medical facilities, technology and know-how at the place of residence, forcing people – if they can afford it – to seek healthcare elsewhere. Countries that fall into this category include places like Indonesia. Many of its wealthy residents seek medical care in Singapore for example. And until recently several countries in the Arab world fell into this category as its wealthy residents sought treatment in the United States and Germany. This situation is changing, however, as these countries, rich with oil, pour money into developing new hospitals and invest in the latest medical technology and expertise. Secondly – and this has now become a powerful driving force – the high cost of treatment or the long waiting time for procedures is forcing people to seek cheaper, faster alternatives elsewhere.

The cost of healthcare in the United States and Western Europe, for example, is exceedingly high, and although most Europeans have healthcare insurance provided either by their employer or the state, there are often long waiting lists for certain procedures. Britain and Canada are notorious for this. The option to travel overseas and have the procedure done sooner at less cost has become increasingly attractive. The time spent waiting for a procedure, such as a hip replacement, can be a year or more in Britain and Canada; however, in Singapore, Bangkok or Bangalore, a patient could feasibly have an operation the day after their arrival.

In the US the situation is a bit different where an estimated 43 million people are without health insurance and 120 million without dental coverage – numbers that are both likely to grow, according to a report published by the University of Delaware. For these people an awareness of the availability of low cost, high quality healthcare overseas is growing and there are an increasing number of reports of Americans seeking medical treatment abroad. In 2006 an estimated 150,000 Americans travelled abroad for medical care. According to Josef Woodman, author of Patients Beyond Borders, medical travel in the US had a net worth of $20 billion in 2006 and a growth potential that is expected to double to $40 billion by 2010.

There are other factors making medical tourism an attractive option. These include the increasing ease of global travel and, more importantly, the recent remarkable improvement in the standard of healthcare on offer at certain hospitals, even though they may be located in the Developing World. A number of hospitals in India, Thailand, Singapore and Lebanon, to name a few countries, have been accredited by Joint Commission International, the international arm of the prestigious US hospital accreditation organisation, ensuring they provide a standard of healthcare equivalent to some of the top medical facilities in the US. For example, Escorts Heart Institute and Research Center in Delhi and Faridabad, India, performs nearly 15,000 heart operations every year, and the death rate among patients during surgery is only 0.8% – less than half that of most major hospitals in the United States.

Singapore positions itself as a medical hub where healthcare services, medicine, biomedical research and pharmaceutical manufacturing converge. The city state has developed a highly respected reputation for many complex surgeries in specialties such as neurology, oncology and organ transplant procedures. The clean, cosmopolitan city is also an added attraction for Western visitors used to the comforts of the Developed World.

Top destinations for medical tourism include Singapore, India, Thailand and South Africa (well known for its so-called surgical-safari), where the relative cost of treatment can be up to one tenth of the cost in the United States or Western Europe. However, there are many other countries – Argentina, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, Jordan, Malaysia, Hungary, Latvia and Estonia – that have hopped on the bandwagon in an effort to grab a piece of this lucrative pie. It’s a large pie and more countries join the list every year.

The development of the Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is bound to have a significant impact on the industry. Expected to be fully operational by 2010, the hi-tech DHCC will be a major drawcard for wealthy patients in the wider Middle East region, many of whom travel to Germany and other destinations for complicated medical procedures.

With this industry expected to continue expanding in the foreseeable future there is bound to be a bigger show of aggressive marketing by these countries in an effort to attract more patients to their shores.

In financial terms, experts estimate that medical tourism could bring India, alone, as much as US$2.2 billion per year by 2012. Another factor that will have major repercussions for the industry is the development of specific insurance instruments to promote medical tourism. At the World Travel Market expo in London in November last year, the world’s first medical tourism card was launched. The Oceanic HealthPlus card can be used for premium healthcare in the UAE, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

If this is a sign of things to come, the industry can look forward to explosive growth over the next several years. Middle East Health is the official media for the 2nd World Health Tourism Congress in Cyprus from 23- 25 March. We will bring you news from this event in the next issue.

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