Medical tourism encompasses the terms medical travel, global healthcare, and health tourism, and describes the practice of people traveling to receive medical treatment, whether necessary or elective. Alternatively, it also refers to the travel of health care providers to deliver healthcare to people in other countries. Medical tourism is becoming an increasingly popular practice among those who wish to have options when it comes to their healthcare. The services offered in a medical tourism setting are almost limitless and could include heart surgery, join replacement surgery, cosmetic surgery, dental surgery, and even in vitro fertilization. Furthermore, medical tourism can involve alternative treatments, psychiatry, and convalescent care. Those concerned about the quality of care in regard to medical tourism can look to the U.S.-based Joint Commission International, among other companies, which inspects and accredits healthcare facilities outside of U.S. Borders. Savvy patients will look for a facility or hospital that is accredited by a respected source when considering treatment abroad.
Interestingly, medical tourism is not as nouveau as many believe. While it has certainly experienced an increase in popularity in recent years, the concept of traveling for healthcare dates back many centuries. The ancient Greeks were known to travel to a territory called Epidauria, in the Saronic Gulf of the Mediterranean, to seek healing from the god Asklepios. Even early spas can, in retrospect, be called medical tourism. In the 1700s, people from all around England traveled to the small village of Bath to partake in the supposed healing waters of the natural mineral springs. Americans, as well as citizens of other First World countries such as Europe, Japan, Canada, and the Middle East are opting to seek medical treatment outside of their own borders. In 2007, it is estimated that approximately 750,000 Americans sought medical treatment abroad, and that number was projected to double in 2008.
Medical tourism continues to increase in popularity because of the many benefits that are associated with receiving medical treatment abroad. The primary benefits of medical tourism include cost, convenience, and the ability to combine travel to exotic locals with high-quality medical treatment. Those who reside in countries with lower health standards participate in medical tourism as a means to receive medical treatment that is superior to what is available at home. However, those from First World countries are more likely to travel for medical reasons. It is generally cited that people from countries such as the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada generally possess more wealth; that coupled with their high expectations of healthcare in general, leads First World citizens to seek out alternative options, whether on the surgery table or the psychiatrist’s couch.
The primary reason that people elect to receive medical treatment abroad is cost. Even those with insurance may opt to travel for medical care, especially when the entire cost of the trip, including treatment, can be accomplished for far less than the cost of an insurance deductible. Those savings, coupled with the promise of a vacation to a far-off land, make medical tourism an attractive incentive to many. While it is normal to save as much as 50% on overall costs, in some cases the savings can be substantially more. Those traveling to India and Costa Rica can expect to save as much as 80-90% overall on some treatments when compared to the costs in North America or the British Isles. Medical tourists traveling to Thailand for heart surgery can expect to pay only 20% of what they would pay in the United States. Knee and hip replacement surgeries can cost anywhere between $25,000 and $50, 000 in the United States, but can cost as little as $5000 in countries like Columbia and India.
While the cost alone is certainly enough to get the attention of many people disillusioned with healthcare, there are other reasons that prompt people to grab their passports and head out on a dual-purpose journey. For many, convenience and speed are among the most-cited reasons for health travel. While there are many benefits to public healthcare, such as the system that is operated in Canada, a severe downside is the wait time that is often required for non-emergency care. To many, waiting six months for a hip replacement surgery is not only ludicrous, it’s not an option. This is especially true considering that it is possible to travel to a medical tourism destination and receive a new hip in the matter of days or weeks. For those who cannot, or are not willing to, wait for health care, medical tourism is an increasingly attractive option.
It would be remiss to discuss medical tourism without addressing the risks involved. Those who reside in countries with high standards of living, the conditions in some countries that provide treatment to tourists is less than ideal. This is why it is important to seek out hospitals and treatment facilities that are accredited. In countries were political and other domestic issues can make travel dangerous, many companies that organize medical treatment abroad often provide case managers to assist with medical and non-medical issues both before and after travel. Because lower standards of living often carry the risk of infectious disease such as tuberculosis, typhoid, HIV, and amoebic dysentery, to name a few, it is important for medical tourists to consider all related health risks before embarking on a journey. Additionally, medical tourists that are generally ill should consider the risks associated with long flights, climate changes, and fatigue in general. Finally, medical tourists should consider cultur al and language barriers that might make the situation difficult.
Those considering medical tourism should also be aware of legal and ethical issues that may be present. Because laws and opportunities for litigation are different in other countries, people need to be aware of their rights when it comes to receiving medical care in another country. As far as ethics are concerned, medical tourists should be aware of issues surrounding organs and tissues that could be purchased illegally. Many naysayers cite that citizens of countries where medical tourism is growing in popularity often have trouble receiving healthcare because most doctors are focused on the foreigners who are coming into the country to receive medical treatment.
Overall, many proponents of medical tourism, or health travel, believe that the risks outweigh the benefits, especially when a person is diligent in doing their research and seeking out an accredited source for healthcare treatment. Of primary consideration is the cost savings that is associated with medical tourism, especially in countries where the cost of domestic healthcare is increasing at an ever-growing rate. Due to the technological advancements and global standards of care in the healthcare industry, medical tourists can enjoy treatments that are as good as, if not better than, the treatments they would receive on their home turf. When time is of the essence, many people come to find that the only way to get fast medical treatment is to travel. Add to that the enjoyment of having a vacation abroad in conjunction with a necessary or elective surgery or treatment, and many people decide that medical tourism is the answer. Thanks to increasing ease and relative low cost of international travel, getting to the destination isn’t nearly as hard as it may have once been. In short, many people today are finding that the Greeks were pretty smart when they first introduced the idea of medical tourism thousands of years ago.