Imagine recuperating in one of the most picturesque places on the planet after undergoing dental, knee, or cosmetic surgery — all at a fraction of the cost you would pay back home. Medical tourism is an increasingly enticing option for many patients and a growing industry worldwide.
At the center of the global industry are emerging countries in Latin America and Asia that offer foreign patients alternatives to domestically provided elective and life-saving surgical procedures. Despite warnings from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the potential risks of seeking medical treatment abroad and criticism of gaps in medical standards and professional training, as well as language barriers, medical tourism is in growth mode.
According to statistics provided by Patients Beyond Borders, the top destinations for medical tourism in Latin America are Costa Rica and Mexico. The global industry is currently worth between $38.5 billion and $55 billion; the industry serves an estimated 11 million patients who spend $3,500 to $5,000 per visit. In fact, some countries are marketing themselves as centers of excellence for cosmetic surgery, dentistry, cancer, cardiovascular surgery, reproductive services, and weight-loss surgeries.
Some emerging markets emphasize the tourism component. For instance, Mexico’s Medical Tourism Board provides information for patients that includes details on spas as well as medical clusters on a website replete with images of beaches and spas. And it’s not just emerging markets that are exploring opportunities: The Conference Board of Canada will host a webinar in early May 2015 on the topic “Medical Tourism: An Opportunity for Canada.”
Supporters of medical tourism argue that income from this sector could go toward subsidizing local health care services; others defend it as a viable alternative for cash-strapped patients. According to a report by the World Health Organization, the main drivers of medical tourism are the search for the most advanced medical technology, better quality of care, quicker access for procedures, and lower-cost care for both necessary and discretionary procedures.
A Deloitte report identifies drivers in the US that support Americans’ demand for medical tourism, including increased globalization of the US workforce and greater access to low-cost global travel. Insurance coverage and demand for dental surgery also are on the rise as the US population ages.
While acknowledging some apparent benefits, critics cite several reasons for caution, including the lack of legal recourse if something goes wrong as well as issues with postoperative care quality.
US insurers are recognizing the popularity of the trend with their customers. Some have been extending coverage for medical tourism over the past eight years. Data compiled by Deloitte in 2008 indicates American medical insurers covered travel to India, Mexico, and Thailand. Since then, more insurers have joined in.
Health care around the world is a topic that elicits strong views, and medical tourism has garnered both supporters and opponents in the last decade. While the discourse is likely to rage on, the statistics suggest that it is likely to remain a part of the global health care landscape. Hence, it is imperative for policy makers and companies in the private health care sector to consider this industry as a viable source of cost savings and/or revenue, depending on the organization’s objectives.