What is Medical Tourism?

By , MD, PhD

Medical tourism can be defined as the process of traveling outside the country of residence for the purpose of receiving medical care. Growth in the popularity of medical tourism has captured the attention of policy-makers, researchers and the media. Originally, the term referred to the travel of patients from less-developed countries to developed nations in pursuit of the treatments not available in their homeland.

Today we are experiencing both qualitative and quantitative shifts in patient mobility, as people travel from richer to less-developed countries in order to access health services. Such shift is mostly driven by the relative low-cost of treatments in less developed nations, the availability of inexpensive flights and increased marketing and online consumer information about the availability of medical services.

What really puts the word "tourism" in medical tourism concept is that people often stay in the foreign country after the medical procedure. Travelers can thus take advantage of their visit by sightseeing, taking day trips or participating in any other traditional tourism activities.

Cost

Medical tourism represents a worldwide, multibillion-dollar phenomenon that is expected to grow considerably in the next decade. For the individual interested in health services, cost is the key factor involved in the decision to receive medical care abroad.

As healthcare costs in the US and other parts of the world are excessively soaring, many employers and insurance companies started to view medical tourism as a way to lower them. More and more countries around the globe start to see the financial benefits from this emerging market, so they offer premium medical services at notably lower prices.

The primary reason that clinics and hospitals in the developing countries are able to lower their prices is directly related to the nation's economic status. The direct correlation with per capita gross domestic product of the country is observed, which is a proxy for income levels. As a consequence, surgery prices are from 30% to 70% lower in the countries that are promoting medical tourism when compared to the US.

Quality

There are two major components of the service quality in the health care sector - technical or mechanical quality and serviceable or functional quality. Technical equipment is at the core of the patients' diagnostic algorithm, while the functional quality is measured by the service offered in the healthcare centers (such as the services of staffs, nurses and, most importantly, the doctors towards the patient and their assistants). The service quality in medical tourism industry is a vital part in attracting customers.

One of the fundamental barriers in accepting medical tourism is the perception of inadequate quality. A key to overcome it is using adequate marketing strategies and quality assessment via accreditation from an internationally recognized institution. Such accreditation is pivotal for strengthening confidence in the quality of healthcare.

This confidence can be even stronger if accreditation is followed by an affiliation with reputable hospitals or health care systems in industrialized countries. Once healthcare providers are accredited and become a part of international referral networks, they can be appropriately rated for risks.

Treatment types

Categories of different treatments and their availability also represent an important factor in decision to engage in medical tourism. The most common types of procedures that patients pursue during medical tourism trips are elective cosmetic surgery, dentistry, organ transplantation, cardiac surgery and orthopedic surgery.

However, a wide variety of services can be obtained through medical tourism, ranging from various essential treatments to different kinds of traditional and alternative treatments. Reproductive tourism and reproductive outsourcing are growing in popularity, which is the practice of traveling abroad to engage in surrogate pregnancy, in vitro fertilization and other assisted reproductive technology methods.

In addition to cost, other major factor responsible for the increase of medical tourism is access. The lack of it, either due to the unavailability of the technology or the prohibition in the home country, can subsequently lead to medical tourism. The common examples are cytoplasmic transfer or stem cell therapy.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Sep 17, 2014

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