In recent decades, apart from the movement of goods and services from one corner of the world to another, globalization has brought many new aspects in its folds. Medical tourism is one of the growing phenomena of the globalized world. In recent years, significant growth has been observed in the medical tourism sector. As a result of the high healthcare cost, people from developed countries move from their home country to another to receive treatment. There is no defined definition of medical tourism, as governments worldwide follow different criteria to count the number of treatments and services offered. 

What is Medical Tourism?

Traveling from one country to another to receive medical care is referred to as Medical tourism, and the patients receiving medical treatment are often referred to as medical tourists or medical travelers. The cost and quality of medical services offered are the two main factors that drive the medical tourism industry.  Apart from these, factors such as limited insurance coverage, medical interventions not supported by home country, commercial organ transplants are other factors that make medical tourism thriving.  

Why is medical tourism important? Which are the top medical tourism countries?

Medical tourism offers a wide range of potential opportunities to the host countries. It improves their reputation in the healthcare sector and creates employment in healthcare and related industries. The most important aspect is the increase in medical revenue and economic growth. 

In the past, most people from developing countries used to travel to developed countries for healthcare services due to the availability of advanced technology and healthcare specialists. However, during the past few decades, the trend has reversed. The developing countries have made massive progress in their healthcare system, and many people seek healthcare services in developing countries. Among the Asian medical tourism industry, India, Thailand, Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore are common medical treatment destinations. 

Similarly, in the American continent, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, and Mexico are preferred medical treatment destinations. In the last two decades, the middle-eastern countries like UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Egypt have invested and revamped their existing healthcare infrastructure with many modern technologies. In the coming years, the gulf counties are expected to attract many medical tourists from European and African countries due to their strategic location.

What are the types of medical tourism?

Patients worldwide are adopting the route of medical tourism to seek a wide range of medical, surgical, and dental services. The most prominent healthcare services opted to include cosmetic surgery, dentistry, orthopedic surgery, cardiac surgery, and organ transplantation. Simultaneously, the demand for assisted reproductive technology like in vitro fertilization and surrogacy is also increasing at a rapid pace. Apart from these, Asian countries are significantly adding a wide range of traditional and alternative treatments in the existing armamentarium such as Ayurveda, Homeopathy, and many others. The demand for these therapies is immensely growing in western countries. 

What are the risks and challenges associated with Medical Tourism?

Certain challenges in the medical tourism sector affect its growth. Some of the leading challenges include:

  • Communication barrier – Communication is one of the significant barriers to medical tourism. The interaction between patient and doctor can hamper the medical service. However, the issue can be addressed with the help of an interpreter.
  • Quality of medication – Countries follow a different procedure for medication testing and approval. In some cases, medication quality in developing countries can affect health. 
  • Post-operative care –  In some cases, there may arise issues related to post-operative care. The health insurance plans in the home country may not support the post-operative complication and symptoms. 

Post-procedural care accountability, expected and actual health outcomes after treatment, traveling risk, cultural differences, issues related to privacy, and patient information confidentiality are some other issues associated with Medical Tourism.

What are the main factors that drive the medical tourism sector?

A wide range of factors influences people to receive healthcare from overseas countries. However, some of the most critical factors include – 

  • Soaring cost of healthcare services in the developed countries – Attractively lower cost of services attracts the people from developed countries to developing countries for medical care. Similarly, no healthcare insurance and coverage of limited services related to cosmetic surgery, fertility treatment, gender reassignment procedures, and dental reconstruction under the healthcare scheme also influence the decision.
  • Quality care – The quality of medical services offered is another primary driver for medical tourism. Several hospitals in developing countries are accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI) to another country’s hospitals and healthcare centers. Similarly, healthcare professionals also have internationally respected credentials and are trained in foreign countries like the USA, UK, Canada, and many others. The services provided are at par with the developed countries.
  • Long waiting lists – In some developed countries, the long waiting list prompts patients to seek healthcare services from another country. The patients can bypass the waiting list, such as that for Hip replacement surgeries without any delay in time. 
  • Technological advancement – Earlier, patients not well versed with the medical facilities in another country, coordinate with the hospital or healthcare provider via travel agents to make an informed decision. However, the Information and communications technology (ICT) today can connect healthcare providers directly to patients. In the coming years also, the trend is likely going to move forward. Similarly, transferring the electronic medical records and related diagnostic has simplified the procedure to contact and consult healthcare professionals. 

Other factors, such as follow-up care, inexpensive flights, a wide range of accommodations options, easy medical visa policy, provision for the attendant, are some of the other factors that influence the medical tourism sector.  

What is the future of medical tourism? 

Today the competition is fierce in the healthcare industry. Every country is making an effort to develop its healthcare sector to cater to the needs of the local population and attract foreign patients. Although, amid the travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 lockdown, the past year has observed a significant drop in medical tourists. The lockdown measure has disrupted the revenue and the momentum of the healthcare industry in many countries. However, in the coming month, with the expected launch of the vaccine, the sector is expected to recover. Many countries have launched a dedicated medical tourism portal for healthcare procedures, immigration, and visa-related information. Some are offering an extended stay policy and the option to allow medical attendant visas for blood relatives. Similarly, the host countries are making changes in legislation governing the privacy and confidentiality of patient information. After the vaccine launch and improvement in the current situation due to the Coronavirus, the healthcare tourism industry is expected to grow leaps and bounds.