Medical Tourism: What Is and What Is Not?

Travel for health is not a new phenomenon. People have long been traveling outside their hometowns for health purposes. However, more recently, this phenomenon has increased in intensity to the point where a new type of tourism, labeled “medical tourism”, can be clearly distinguished. What do people understand by medical tourism? Why do they engage in medical tourism? What are the main characteristics of medical tourism? In this section, we will try to answer these questions.

Medical tourism refers to the travel from an individual’s home country to another country in order to access better medical procedures and alternative therapies (Cohen 2010; Erdogan and Yilmaz 2012). Medical tourism includes broad scope for medical procedures such as hip and knee replacement cardiac surgery, organ transplant, dental surgery, cosmetic surgeries, alternative therapies, psychiatry, alternative treatments, and convalescent care. Although the basic reason for the travel is health, it could also involve touristic activities. This is the main reason for medical tourism being considered as a kind of tourism. Medical tourism is a global business in which countries compete with each other in order to get the lion’s share of the pie.

The main reasons why patients seek medical care in other countries are as follows:

  • 1. The high cost of health care in their country of origin. If we add to this the low income level for certain social categories, we understand why getting medical help in some countries could be difficult. A survey conducted by the Medical Tourism Association (2013) shows that about 80% of medical tourists travel because of cost differences among countries. It also shows that spending of medical tourists ranges between $7475 and $15,833 per travel. Because the cost impact is the most influential factor in the emergence of medical tourism, it is referred as a cost-effective industry.
  • 2. Long waiting time to access health services.
  • 3. Lack of insurance or inadequate insurance coverage is the third reason which forces people to seek other options. Usually insurance does not cover all the medical procedures such as cosmetic surgeries, some kind of dental surgeries, abortion, and organ transplant.
  • 4. Changing characteristics, perceptions, and attitudes of people could be listed as the most important factor for medical tourism. People, who enjoy good living and freedom, aesthetics and discovering new things and places, no longer hesitate to travel to distant and unfamiliar countries for medical treatment. For example, an increasing number of people today are concerned about their look (aesthetic), and many are willing to travel to other countries to undergo cosmetic surgery. Cosmetic surgery constitutes the main motivation for 38% of all medical travels (Medical Tourism Association 2013). Due to certain ethical and legal issues, patients in many countries do not have access to some (controversial) medical procedures such as gender reassignment, euthanasia (and assisted suicide), abortion, and organ transplant.

In all these situations, medical tourism offers a glimmer of hope to many patients. Globalization of health, technological developments, and technology transfer to developing countries, increasing transportation opportunities and affordable transportation fees, increasing communication options especially though internet and the possibilities of seeing new places along with medical treatment have also raised the attractiveness of medical tourism. The availability of a broad range of medical treatments during the holiday improves the attractiveness of a city or country as a medical tourism destination.

Effective media coverage is another factor that can increase the success of healthcare providers in medical tourism sector (Mirrer-Singer 2007; Connell 2011; Erdogan and Yilmaz 2012). For example, a clip about Bumrungrad Hospital in Thailand aired on American television generated over 3000 email only from Americans who inquired about the possibility to receive medical treatment at this hospital (Turner 2007).

Increasing cost of health care prompted governments to debate the possible effect of medical tourism on their healthcare systems and economies. As a result, some countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, and the UAE decided that it would be more cost-effective to support their citizens to go abroad for treatment (Connell 2011). USA is another country that explores the way to decrease the cost of healthcare services via medical tourism (U.S. Senate 2006; Marlowe and Sullivan 2007).

 
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