Medical/health tourism is in simple terms, explain a phenomenon, where an individual travels to a foreign nation to seek medical care, health tourism. Thailand, Singapore, and India have emerged as the top three destinations for medical tourism for procedures like cardiac surgery, orthopaedics, and dental care as well as elective procedures like aesthetic surgeries (Botox, cheek lift, chemical peel, chin surgery, cosmetic dentistry, dermabrasion, eyebrow/forehead rejuvenation and blepharoplasty), since these treatments are cheap in developing economies compared to the developed ones.
Millions of US residents participate in medical tourism. Mexico and Canada, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean are some of their preferred locations to get state-of-the-art treatment.
As per the United States CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention), people undertake medical tourism for reasons including cost (to get cheaper treatment in another country), culture (to receive care from a healthcare provider who shares the traveller’s culture and language) and availability of the procedure (to get a procedure or therapy that is not available or approved in the home country).
According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, some 642,444 medical tourists visited Turkey in 2021, a 66% increase from 2020. The report also included Thailand, Costa Rica, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Brazil, Singapore, Turkey, Colombia, South Korea, Taiwan, Czech Republic, Spain, Australia, China, and Indonesia as popular medical tourism destinations.
Most of these countries have already developed strategies to promote digitalization in their healthcare services, thus creating a demand for the best and most valued universal treatment methodologies, boosting the chances of more and more collaborations with foreign organizations.
Data Bridge Market Research published a report titled, “Health Tourism Market” in January 2023. It predicted that the health tourism market, which was worth USD 27.195 million in 2022, will reach USD 410.61 million by 2030, at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 40.4% during the forecast period 2023 to 2030.
“Health tourism is a subset of the healthcare industry that focuses on the needs of patients travelling across international borders for complex surgeries and medical treatments. Medical tourism is popular among global patients, owing to the low cost of medical treatments in developing countries, which is found to be very expensive in developed countries. Access to low-cost services and medical treatments from various tourism departments and local governments is a major factor in the global health tourism market’s growth,” the report remarked.
As per the Data Bridge research, medical tourism’s market growth will be driven by the adoption of connectivity technologies, digital platforms, and telemedicine.
The report also identified two crucial factors propelling the growth of the sector.
First of them is globalization, which has been a major driving force in medical tourism, allowing many consumers to obtain the highest quality and most affordable healthcare treatments. Apart from improving healthcare by 75%, globalization has also reduced treatment costs by 25%, especially for citizens of the United States and other developed countries.
Then comes the rise in the demand for Online Medical Agencies (OMAs). Most countries have developed strategies to promote digitized healthcare services, thus improving collaboration with foreign organizations. This gets further boosted with improvements in treatment methods, thereby increasing the demand for medical tours. Market growth is expected to be driven by the adoption of connectivity technologies, digital platforms, and telemedicine.
“As per recent research, the four most popular reasons given for why patients travel abroad to receive medical treatment were ‘Affordability (costly in home country)’ at 88%, ‘Accessibility (waiting period is high)’ at 66%, ‘Better quality (care and support services are better quality than the home country) at 38% and ‘Availability (not available in home country) at 46%. With these important reasons, the growth of Medical Tourism is inevitable; hence it is important to understand the positives and negatives of this growing trend across all sectors,” remarked an editorial in ‘Medical Tourism Magazine’.
Impact of medical tourism on formal economy
A report from ‘MEDTOUR PRESS’ states, “Incoming medical tourists and their activities during their stay, such as staying in hotels and accommodations, generate huge amounts of income for the host country. In order to better understand the amount of growth that this type of income has experienced it is noteworthy that in 2007, 750 thousand US citizens travelled abroad for medical purposes. In 2015 this number was 19 million. That is a growth of more than 250%. India is one of the foremost receivers of these patients, a country that is expected to make more than 7 billion Dollars from medical tourism by the end of 2020.”
Medical tourism encourages healthcare specialists to work in their home country, as the healthcare centres dedicated to medical tourism destinations provide their staff salaries similar to the ones in developed countries. This has also resulted in doctors from Europe and the United States moving into countries like Singapore and Thailand.
Also, countries eyeing to become medical tourism destinations are forced to upgrade their healthcare game, thus benefiting their own indigenous populations as well.
The prominence and fame of medical tourism have given rise to the medical tourist hospitality industry. Hotels and resorts are getting constructed to accommodate medical tourists. In 2015, 15% of the entire Thai medical tourism income was generated by the medical tourist hospitality industry.
Medical tourism has a complementary relationship with mainstream tourism as well. Medical tourists also visit the cultural, historical and natural attractions of their host country during their recovery period. A 2008 report from the World Health Organization stated that medical tourism pumped some 1.8 billion dollars into the mainstream tourism industry.
As destinations of medical tourism (dedicated healthcare centres) continuously upgrade their resources, associated industries like the pharmaceutical and surgical equipment sections experience business growth.
Medical tourism also helps in facilitating the improvement of relations between countries, thus giving good scope to pacts like the visa non-requirement ones. The cultural and trade exchanges between the nations also improve their GDPs.
COVID-19 & medical tourism
According to a MedicalDevice Network report, “GlobalData estimates that there were over 14 million inbound visits by medical tourists globally in 2019 and forecasts this number to continue to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 4.5% until 2024. Some of the fastest-growing markets are forecast to increase at CAGRs as high as 15% over the next few years.”
The report also talked about the pandemic introducing a new branch of medical tourism called vaccine tourism, which involves tourists from countries with poor pandemic response to use vaccination as the opportunity to travel and explore new places.
“Some travel packages even include vaccination as a key component of the travel experience. At first, this was most apparent among Canadian medical tourists in late 2020 and early 2021, when many chose to travel to the Southern US because COVID-19 vaccines were substantially more available in the United States than in Canada. So far in H2 2021, countries like Canada and other developed nations have caught up or even exceeded the vaccination rates of the United States, but the global distribution of vaccines remains a critical issue. A minority of wealthy individuals in many of the developing nations have thus also considered vaccine tourism,” the same report stated.
Now a CNBC report is suggesting that despite China’s full COVID vaccination rate crossing the 85% mark, given the “poor quality” of Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, many Chinese citizens are now flocking to Macao to get jibed with Western mRNA vaccines, due to the superior immunity offered by the latter.
Cons of medical tourism
A major risk for medical tourists comes in form of getting substandard medical treatment in another country. These tourists rely on the internet to get information about their treatment procedures, visas and other related details in the countries they are about to travel to. There is a lack of global governing standards in this field. SAGE journals’ previous studies revealed large variations in the information provided on the hospital websites and medical tourism facilitators, depending on the destinations and target markets. Based on a thematic content analysis of Canadian broker websites, Penney et al. found in 2011 that about 29% of those websites did not disclose the credentials of the foreign medical providers they promoted, and 47% did not mention risks associated with medical tourism.
While these dedicated healthcare centres are sometimes accredited by international bodies and staffed with specialised and experienced physicians, concerns remain on aspects like infections and side effects after medical procedures.
“Receiving treatment abroad involves squeezing a series of medical interventions into a short time span and the absence of follow-up care unless further trips are made,” SAGE journals stated.
Patients face two-fold risks, one of not having the option of returning to the same hospital to treat their post-operative side effects and secondly, they can also get exposed to other dangerous infections, during their treatment. In that case, they will have no other option but to get treated at hospitals in their own countries, thereby making the medical trip a bad investment.
“With patient travels, there is a significant risk of corresponding bacterial travel. Recent superbug research has created significant alerts. All industry professionals must understand the negative impact of communicable diseases. Hence, good strategies should be developed by global organizations to protect spread of such diseases. Understanding and control is vital,” commented ‘Medical Tourism Magazine’.
“It is true that medical tourism escalates the per capita rates of the host country but it escalates several other detrimental factors as well. For infrastructural growth, the natural greenery or forest cover of a region is compromised in order to accommodate more buildings, hospital facilities, roads, treatment or diagnostic centres etc. To supplement the above, there is a continuous discharge of polluted air, solid-toxic medical waste, litters of sewage consisting of oil and chemicals. Architectural, noise and visual pollution also have a direct negative impact on the atmosphere,” it remarked, while talking about the cons of visiting another country for critical treatment.