Medical tourism simply means traveling to another country for medical treatment in that country – something that, according to a story in Forbes in August, 1.25 million Americans will do this year. “Medical Tourism is not a new phenomenon,” the story says, “but it is taking on a completely different persona to what was earlier envisaged. Many healthcare systems – in the U.S., U.K. and Germany – are undergoing significant challenges: waiting lists, shifting priorities for healthcare, tightened eligibility criteria, etc. Today, with the globalization of information and the empowerment of the consumer, medical tourism involves individuals acting as a consumer, making their own decisions regarding their health needs, deciphering how they can best be treated, and then finding the most appropriate provider”.
Although the size of the medical tourism market is difficult to gauge with complete accuracy, Frost & Sullivan research puts it at approximately USD 50-65 billion in 2014. Patients Beyond Borders puts the figure somewhat lower at USD 38.5-55 billion, “based on approximately 11 million cross-border patients worldwide spending an average of USD 3,500-5,000 per visit, including all medically-related costs, cross-border and local transport, inpatient stay and accommodations”.
And the market is growing as the global population ages and becomes more affluent at rates that are overwhelming the available healthcare resources. While finding definitive numbers is challenging, the benefits to those who make the trip are indisputable. Medical tourism is no longer about cheaper procedures and vacations. It is also about the quality of doctors and technology, and care models that many of these countries are pursuing that make this form of tourism different from what we had seen before.
International accreditation has become one of the biggest drivers of the growth of the medical tourism market. Responding to a global demand for accreditation standards, the US-based Joint Commission launched its international affiliate agency in 1999, Joint Commission International (JCI). In order to be accredited by JCI, an international hospital must meet the same set of rigorous standards set in the US by the Joint Commission, something more than 600 hospitals around the world have done.
Meanwhile, medical care in the US is exorbitantly expensive. Citizens are told that this is because their country has the best healthcare in the world, and that may be true, but for a fraction of the price of a procedure at an American hospital you can find a US-trained and board-certified doctor at an internationally renowned JCI-accredited hospital like Bangkok Hospital or Bumrungrad in Thailand utilizing state-of-the-art technology and performing the very same procedure.
According to Patients Beyond Borders, using the costs in the States across a variety of specialties and procedures as a benchmark, the average range of savings for the most-travelled destinations are, in alphabetical order:
- Brazil: 20-30%
- Costa Rica: 45-65%
- India: 65-90%
- Malaysia: 65-80%
- Mexico: 40-65%
- Singapore: 25-40%
- South Korea: 30-45%
- Taiwan: 40-55%
- Thailand: 50-75%
- Turkey: 50-65%
But there are other factors beyond the huge savings. Time is one, because time is money, and you’re not going to have forever off work to take a vacation or medical leave – so why sacrifice a dream vacation just because you want or need a medical procedure – which is precisely when you need a break the most. Getting back to the cost factor, lodging and relaxation is so inexpensive in medical tourism destinations like Thailand that you can put your feet up and chill far longer than you’d expect. Want to stay awhile and enjoy the sun, the sea, the spas, the cuisine and the culture while you mend? We’ll talk about that in Part II of this post.
Having a good reason to travel is another plus. Most of us have dream destinations that we’ve told ourselves we would see “someday”. The opportunity to actually do it is something to be taken seriously. You’re getting time off of work and need to spend the money on medical care anyway, so why not save money and see another country at the same time?
Unfortunately, not all medical procedures are covered by health insurance. If your doctor has recommended a procedure and your health insurance won’t pay, or would drop you if they knew you had it done, it’s time to explore other options. Don’t put your health in the hands of bureaucrats trying to save themselves money at your expense. Instead, plan your escape.
While we all know that “there’s no place like home,” a lot of us just don’t want to be stuck there before surgery or while recovering. You know there is that one special person you want by your side and the rest of the world can just be put on hold for a while. Well, when you’re on the other side of an ocean the rest of the world can’t get to you. Nobody needs to know how you lost 30 pounds in two weeks either – tell them you’re going to an exercise boot camp and no one need be the wiser.
The lower cost of procedures overseas means that you can get all your check-ups, that big procedure, and any others you may have been putting off – and still come out ahead. When all is said and done the question isn’t why medical tourism, or how much the market is worth, but when we’re going to get on with it.